Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine @ Azla vegan

The Location: South L.A. / Downtown

The Vibes: Community-oriented, friendly, open, colorful, inviting

Good for: Traditional Ethiopian fare with a vegan twist

When-To-Go: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.; closed on Sundays

The $ Factor: $; Combo meals range from $3.95 to $11.95 and come with 1-4 items

The 4-1-1: Azla is part of the Mercado La Paloma, an entrepreneurial incubator where dozens of local residents have access and assistance with launching their own businesses.

I’ll be back: To check out the monthly Brunch Club series, taking place every last Sunday of the month. It features DJs, an Ethiopian-fusion breakfast and vegan pastries created by 17-year-old Clara, of Clara Cakes.

“Beyond vegan, I’d really love to see Ethiopian food become a major global cuisine. 
The same way that people think about Thai food or Mexican food, 
I’d love people to have Ethiopian food on the top of their mind.” 
– Nesanet, owner of Azla vegan

Azla vegan is something spectacularly special, more than just the opening of another Ethiopian restaurant…It’s the first Ethiopian restaurant in the downtown area. It’s also a vegan restaurant. And, it’s a family-owned business, with the mother-daughter duo of marketing guru Nesanet (pictured below) and her mother chef Azla, its namesake, running the restaurant and its adjacent shop.

After speaking with Nesanet briefly over the phone and arranging a time to stop by, I headed down to where Azla has been located since it opened last summer 2013—in Mercado La Paloma, which has an intriguing story of origins in its own right (more on this little mercadito later; post coming soon). Inside this entrepreneurial incubator that makes up the Mercado is the colorful blend of food stands and shops, featuring cuisine and artwork of various global cultures—from the Yucatan and Michoacan regions of Mexico, to Thailand and, of course, Ethiopia.

Upon my arrival, Nesanet greeted me with a big, warm smile, a packed plate of some of Azla’s prized specialties and she sat down to speak with me. During our conversation and a follow-up phone interview, she shared with me her passion about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, her pride in Ethiopian food and what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in the heart of L.A.

“I used to actually teach in this area; I taught in South L.A. and I love this part where it meets downtown,” she began, explaining why Azla is located where it is. “One of our missions is to provide nutrient-dense foods to populations in areas that don’t necessarily have an abundance of choices in terms of healthy food. I also enjoy the fact that this neighborhood is transforming. it’s a nice, eclectic mix of residents from South L.A., the university [USC], and the creative community. We wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t so oversaturated with vegan and vegetarian restaurants; we wanted to provide this option to a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily have that, but has the community of people who are hungry for it.”

Azla vegan is very simple and no frills. You walk up to the counter and order items off the standing menu—items like the Yatakilt (curry potatoes, carrots and cabbage)—or daily specials, like the spicy mushrooms, the day that I was there. Everything you order is loaded onto a plate, placed on a colorful tray and you can sit down anywhere in Mercado La Paloma, which has tons of tables and chairs scattered throughout (see photo to the right).

Now I can't lie. When I tend to think of vegan or vegetarian diets, I (ignorantly) assume that they mostly consist of a whole bunch of salads, inedible raw foods and a few nuts thrown in for kicks. In other words, boring, dull and food that I’d tire of really quickly. But Azla proves that vegan food can be extremely varied, full of flavor and also very filling. Every single dish has its own unique feel to it, thanks to the varying spices and diverse ingredients in each one. This was great to experience, especially since my visit to Azla came on the eve of a unique time in my life: I was starting a two-week vegan cleanse the very next day.

“Ethiopian food provides such an interesting opportunity to introduce people to plant-based foods that aren’t bland and aren’t full of over-processed foods, like the fake meat—although we do play with those every now and then just for special occasions,” said Nesanet. “Our food has such tasty options with lots of different textures and colors that are just made from just straight up plants and beans and legumes. You know exactly that they came out of the ground; someone didn’t create them in some manufacturing plant.”

She continued: “Our restaurant and our approach is also to make it really accessible: our customer service, the way we talk to people and are really interested in sharing information beyond ‘This is what’s on our menu.’ We really love to share like—‘these are the health benefits of some of our spices’ and ‘this is why you can get protein from a vegan diet; it doesn’t have to be meat.’ We’re going to play hopefully a big role in educating a larger audience not only to just Ethiopian food, but also the benefits of a plant-based diet.”

Hands down, my Azla favorites were the Shimbra (pictured above) and the cooked Kale and Collards. Shimbra is a crunchy mixture of kale, carrots, chickpeas, cranberries and almonds, tossed in a light vinaigrette and cumin. The Kale and Collards is a warm combination of—you guessed it, kale and collard greens—that is bursting with flavor at every bite. Nesanet attributes this to the chef: “My mom has a magical way of making them less bitter,” she laughed.

And one of customers’ most popular dishes is Misir: red lentils mixed with spicy berbere and Azla’s tofu dish, with tofu sautéed with tomato, onion, garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno (pictured on the plate below, in the left corner). 

“We’re really happy and proud to be a family-owned business,” Nesanet concluded, towards the end of our conversation. “My mom’s dream has always been to open a restaurant and then my background in health and wellness has helped it all come together. We love that we’re a small, family-owned business in this community. We definitely have plans for expansion, so look out for the next location soon,” she laughed.

So the next time you’re in the mood for Ethiopian food and vegan fare, I highly recommend heading to Azla vegan.

See you there soon!

For more information:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Where to Holiday: St. Patrick’s Day

Since St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Monday this year, it may be a little more challenging to go all out for the occasion, but it’s not impossible. Where there’s a will—and a #WilsonsGuide list for you—there’s most certainly a way.

I’ve been researching all weekend long to find you some of the best celebrations going on in the city. Whether it’s a quick lunchtime concert, a few green drinks at a bar, an all-out street festival or live entertainment on a 78-year-old ship the weekend prior, there’s definitely some way for you to get into the spirit, aside from wearing that same green shirt you wear every single year.

Here are my St. Paddy’s Day recommendations and also links to a few other lists that have some stellar suggestions as well. See you at one of these St. Paddy’s Day celebration soon!

The Merriment: The Celtic rock group the young dubliners will perform in one of downtown’s most popular outdoor areas, Pershing Square

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Open-air, crowded, urban, park

Good for: Here’s a great place to have lunch if you’re working, or will already be, in the downtown area. In addition to live music, Irish favorites like corned beef, fish & chips, and other goodies such as funnel cakes and kettle corn and even pints will be available for purchase. 

When-To-Go: Monday, March 17, festivities start at 11 a.m.; concert starts at noon

The $ Factor: Free for the concert

The 4-1-1: Pershing Square is accessible by the metro (Pershing Square (5th Street) stop on the red line) and also has underground parking; or it’s also walking distance from many buildings in the downtown area.

For more information: Website

The Merriment: Food, drinks and games with DJ Aaron Castle, DJ Waldo & DJ Timmy Two Shoes

The Location: Downtown, entrance at Wilshire & Hope

The Vibes: Lively, crowded, festive, outdoors

Good for: Getting in the Irish spirit with one of the oldest pubs in the downtown area. Casey’s has been celebrating St. Paddy’s day since forever; this is their 42nd St. Paddy’s day and their 4th annual street festival.

When-To-Go: Monday, March 17, 6 a.m. – 2 a.m.

The $ Factor: Free before 1pm; $10 GA after 1pm; $40 for VIP ticket (includes access into Casey’s)

The 4-1-1: A few fun facts: The building that Casey’s is in was built in 1916 as a General Store upstairs and as a Turkish bathhouse downstairs. There’s been a lot different establishments in the decades between the former bathhouse and the current pub it is today, including an exclusive cafeteria for the elite, a Spanish eatery and a private dinner club.

For more information: Website

Hand-Crafted Cocktails, Shots and Beers @ State Social House

The Drinks: Hand-crafted green cocktails and shots in honor of St. Patrick’s Day

The Location: West Hollywood

The Vibes: Lounge, sports bar appeal, four bars and a smoker’s lounge and Cigar Bar.

Good for: Cocktail connoisseurs who appreciate a well-made drink. There will be a ton of specialty cocktails for the day, including The Emerald, a blend of tequila, Melon Liqueur, Triple Sec and lime juice, and shots like the Shamrock Shooter, with melon liqueur, Irish Whiskey and Irish cream liqueur. There’s also the regular 20+ beers on tap and signature beer cocktails, such as The Hidden Gun with Irish Whiskey, Amero, orange bitters and Guinness Stout.

When-To-Go: Monday, 11:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.

The $ Factor: Beers $6-$12; cocktails $8-$13

The 4-1-1: State Social House also has quite an expansive menu from the former chef of Pink Taco and Katana, Chef Vernon Cardenas. Options include hearty items like a Whiskey Burger with Jameson-onion jam and Mac & Cheese with gouda and bacon.

For more information: Website 

The Eats: Comforting American classics

The Location: 17 restaurants in the L.A. area, including West L.A., Santa Monica, Torrance and The Valley

The Vibes: Casual, coffee shop vibes, open 24/7

Good for: Those who might not be able to go anywhere to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. You still have a chance to feel part of the festivities by entering this special St. Patrick’s Day contest to win $40 worth of Norms coupons. The contest runs until Thursday, March 13 and is completely free to enter.

When-To-Go: Norms is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week

The $ Factor: $ - Low price point - some meals as little as $5 for a ton of food.

The 4-1-1: On Monday, Norms will roll out a $10.99 Paddy’s Day dinner of corned beef & cabbage and Irish style potatoes with soup, salad and Shamrock Sherbet.

For more information: Contest website

The Merriment: All the fun and green and beer you’d expect on St. Patrick’s Day, just a couple of days earlier, on Saturday, March 15.

The Location: Long Beach

The Vibes: On a historic ship

Good for: Those who simply won’t have the chance to wild out on the actual St. Paddy’s Day can at least still partake in this celebration. Go onboard for live entertainment from six bands, Irish fare (corned beef & cabbage, etc.), green beer, games and even to watch the conference tournament championship games, for basketball fans.

When-To-Go: Saturday, March 15, 7 p.m. – 1 a.m.

The $ Factor: $15 online; $20 at the door

The 4-1-1: There’s also a $159 deal to stay on the Queen Mary for one night, which includes concert tickets and a souvenir cup of beer voucher.

For more information: Website

Molly Malone's St. Patrick's Day Bash

The Merriment: One of LA’s most authentic Irish pub is featuring live bands all day and night, starting at noon.

The Location: Mid-City

The Vibes: Pub, dive bar, inviting

Good for: Bands like the Staggering Jack, The Dunrussagans, Green Ashes, Vagrant Nation and others will jam out at Molly Malone’s, which, in general, has a fantastic bar scene where you can even play darts.

When-To-Go: Monday, March 17, noon until close.

The $ Factor: $10; must buy tickets at the door.

The 4-1-1: Molly Malone’s has been owned by the same Irish family for more than 40 years.

For more information: Website

St. Patrick’s Day Celebration @ The Original Farmers Market

The Merriment: Music and merriment in L.A.’s oldest farmers market.

The Location: Mid-City

The Vibes: Outdoors, packed, lively

Good for: All ages can enjoy the live music and Irish food from Magee’s Kitchen (and green beer and imported Irish beers for the 21+ crowd).

When-To-Go: noon-3 p.m. to see Glen the bagpiper; 6-9 p.m. to hear Jerry McClean play Irish folk music on the West Patio

The $ Factor: Free

For more information: Website

I also compiled a list of websites that have even more great recommendations:

CBS Los Angeles’ Best 2014 St. Patrick’s Day Bars In Los Angeles: 
Features five well-known Irish bars, their descriptions and a map of where they’re all located. Three are in the San Fernando Valley area (Ireland’s 32, Maeve’s Residuals and Timmy Nolan’s Tavern and Grill); Brennan’s Pub is in Marina del Rey and Casey’s Irish Pub is downtown.

CBS Los Angeles’ Best Family-Friendly Activities In Los Angeles For St. Patrick’s Day 2014: Also from CBS Los Angeles is a family-friendly St. Paddy's Day list, with options like the Los Angeles County Irish Fair and Music Festival in Pomona.

Red Tricycle’s Sham-rock Your Weekend: 
Another kid-friendly list; it has the Top 10 kid-friendly activities, from an authentic Celtic cafe—the newly opened Wild Thistle in Culver City—to a Leprechaun’s Lucky Gold Hunt in a Thousand Oaks park.

Saint Patrick's Day 2014 in the South Bay: 
The beach cities—Manhattan, Redondo and Hermosa—have a ton of pubs and bars, and as to be expected, will be swarming with specials the weekend prior and all St. Paddy’s Day. Plus there’s the 19th annual Hermosa Beach St. Patrick's Day Parade.

* All photos from respective locations' websites, except for the Farmers' Market photo.