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Ethiopian restaurant Azla brings the campus and community together

Popular eatery at Mercado La Paloma, opened by mother and daughter, offers healthy food and special events

Nannearl Brown and Joshua Ogundu
USC students Nannearl Brown and Joshua Ogundu survey the array of selections at Azla. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Mercado La Paloma is a market space with traditional food options that reflect the diversity of USC’s neighborhood off Los Angeles’ Figueroa Corridor. Among the stands selling traditional ethnic foods that range from Thai to Oaxacana, there is Azla — a vegan Ethiopian restaurant.

Azla Mekonnen and her husband, who migrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia, raised their family in Central California’s agricultural community, where their daughter, Nesanet Abegaze, grew up with five siblings. Abegaze graduated from Stanford University and initially worked in education. When her mother decided to return from retirement in Ethiopia and follow her dream of owning a restaurant, she jumped on board. The mother-and-daughter co-owners opened the restaurant in 2013 and have shared their favorite delicacies with the Los Angeles community since.

Nesanet Abegaze at Azla

Azla co-owner Nesanet Abegaze plates a dish during the lunch rush. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

With its focus on community building and arts programming, Mercado La Paloma was the perfect place to set up the family business.

As a former teacher at John Muir Middle School, Abegaze was familiar with this L.A. location and wanted the restaurant to serve a community looking for healthy options that were not easily accessible.

“There’s a misperception that these types of communities want junk food, but everybody wants healthy food,” she said.

Arts and eats

The eatery offers gluten-free and vegan options. Some of the most popular items include: injera, a naturally gluten-free flatbread; misip, spicy red lentils; and yatakilt, curry potato and cabbage. Customers can walk up to the display of food on the wooden counter, ask for a sample of the most eye-catching items and build an individualized plate with two or more side dishes.

You never know who is going to walk through the door.

Nesanet Abegaze

“We have the most amazing customers coming multiple times a week,” Abegaze said. “You never know who is going to walk through the door.”

Abegaze also takes advantage of El Mercado’s location, hosting programs that create space for Trojans and the local community to come together and share stories. This past year, she organized a free screenwriting workshop led by filmmaker Haime Gerima, one of her mentors. USC film students and local residents participated in the two-day event.

The restaurant has expanded its business services and now offers catering. “We get a lot of orders from USC,” Abegaze said. “It’s been great.”

Her future goals include expanding Azla to be a larger family-run restaurant and arts space.

“I want to continue building spaces where people are taken care of and sharing stories,” she said.

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Ethiopian restaurant Azla brings the campus and community together

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