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Restaurants : AT ADDIS ABABA, THEY KNOWS THEIR ONIONS

I hadn’t been able to comprehend the craving for “ ‘50s food” (mashed potatoes, puddings, meat loaf . . . ) until last week when I stopped, transfixed by scent, in front of a nondescript house I’d passed many times before. Someone was baking a pie! Ah ha, I thought, the clue to the retro craze. Home is where the hearth is: We want someone stirring a pot (or baking a pie) when we rush inside. “Just fry onions,” a motherly friend of mine says. “You’ll go right back to your grandmother’s house.”

“Back home” implies so many different things, but for Mr. Amare Teferi, owner and host of the Ethiopian restaurant Addis Ababa, onions are an important part of his roots. There is always someone stirring onions on the stove, for 9 and 10 hours at a time, in his two-story Hollywood bungalow cafe.

Inside the modest dark-wood craftsman’s cottage, posters, baskets and Ethiopian dresses are hung on several walls in funky ‘60s Berkeley late Underground Gourmet style. Most of the tables have red glass candle beakers and red plastic placemats showing Solomon and Sheba, but there are also three traditional woven basket tables around which you can sit.

There are about 15 offerings and several combination plates that range in price from $4 for bulgar to “Super Ethiopian Exclusive” at $22. (Add $3 and it serves two!) Most meat and chicken dishes run between $5.95 and $7.50. My friend and I ordered the “Super Exclusive” and the “Vegetarian Exclusive.” This turned out to be a feast--and simply too much to eat.

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The college-educated Teferi is a sweet-humored host who plied us with facts of his country’s 2,000-year history and slyly encouraged us to eat in traditional style from a communal plate. If you really want to be traditional you’ll eat with your hands, although forks are provided for those ingrained with Western ways. We found fingers--along with injera , the traditional bread--to be sufficient tools. Call it a cross between a pressed crumpet and a sponge, the fermented flat wheat bread has more of a tangy texture than a strong flavor of its own. It’s meant to mop up sauces and act as an edible spoon. Addis Ababa serves it two ways: flat underneath platters of food or rolled like little sushi bar washclothes on separate plates. Alone, I found it like an industrial plastic, but soaking up the sauce of the kebeg kikil alicha (spiced lamb cooked Ethiopian style), it was sublime.

Teferi could not be induced to tell us the names of the many spices in the cooking (hot red chili pepper is certainly there!) but did say “it’s the blending of the spices which is most important. No one flavor should stick out.” This notion is rather similar to the preparation of Indian curries: One alternates a succession of textures and tastes from piquant and smooth to grainy and fiery hot.

While I enjoyed specific dishes, I particularly liked the combinations they made. The lamb, rich and deeply flavored, was particularly tasty with both the injera and the bulgar. Don’t look for al dente vegetables here. They (like the cabbage-potato-carrot stew) taste as if Grandma has been lovingly cooking them all day. The collard greens, served here in concentrated pot likker, is surely the granddaddy of American soul food. Beef tips were sweet and lean in an enthralling oniony mass. Dulet (ground meat, liver and tripe) in a “spicy country style” had an intriguing light and nubby taste. Both the doro wat and siga wat (chicken and beef stew, respectively) are cooked with the traditional hot chiles in a rich, brown sauce (and on request, can be served without the hot pepper). Those leery of the traditional form of kitfo , a sort of tartare steak with butter, can try it in a roasted guise. Strictly vegetarian dishes are also available: the aforementioned well-cooked cabbage wot is excellent, homey and mild. A lentil wot , cooked with hot pepper, was the only thing I tasted that violated Mr. Teferi’s rule--the red-hot pepper had a singular and uncooked taste.

Although Ethiopian cooking is so rich it tastes as if a lot of oil goes into the preparation, Teferi says that most of the dishes contain only 2% fat. It’s the nine-hour braising of the onions that adds the succulent base.

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There is beer and wine, soda, coffee and tea, but nothing resembling dessert. “No sweets at all?” we asked more than once, finding it hard to believe. When pressed, Teferi described a honey wine that is illegal to serve in the United States. “No, there are no desserts,” he said, and opened his mouth wide to show us he had no cavities.

While I am not a follower of ‘50s food and I think I’d find Ethiopian too rich for daily meals, I’m crazy about those labor-intensive onions perfuming a homespun dish. I only wish there was an Ethiopian equivalent for freshly baked pie.

Addis Ababa, 6263 Leland Way (one block south of Sunset and Vine), Los Angeles, (213) 463-9788. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Free parking next to restaurant. Cash only. Dinner for two (food only): $11-$40.


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