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!

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