IN THE PAST DECADE OR SO, Chicago’s Ethiopian restaurant community has almost doubled in size, and now it’s just a few restaurants shy of what you’ll find in New York, which has twice the population. The city has a fully stocked Ethiopian grocery, and you can even buy injera from a number of mini-marts owned by non-Ethiopians. None of that’s so in New York.
I haven’t had a bad Ethiopian meal in Chicago, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. And yet, I will: It’s Lalibela, a handsomely decorated place that serves savory food in generous portions at low prices. Best of all, it offers a few dishes that you won’t find in any of the city’s other Ethiopian restaurants, and those dishes are among my favorites.
Starting at around the 5800 block on Chicago’s North Broadway, in a neighborhood called Edgewater, you’ll find a small cluster of Ethiopian places: Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Diamond, Abyssinia and Peacock Café restaurants (the latter, small and Eritrean, has closed but is looking for a new location); and Kukulu Market, where you can buy spices, injera and other Ethiopian items (books, CDs and trinkets from back home). I’ll say a little more about these further on. At 4801 North Broadway, on a block with other restaurants and nightlife, there’s Demera. And if you crave Ethiopian food downtown, you can visit La Sera Café, an eclectic little place, owned by two Ethiopian sisters, that has a few Ethiopian dishes on the menu.
Lalibela stands all alone on North Ashland Avenue, an attractive boulevard that’s just a block west of the busy North Clark Street, but that has a completely different feel to it. There are a few other businesses near Lalibela on Ashland, but mostly it’s a residential neighborhood. That suits the homespun atmosphere of Lalibela perfectly.
Lalibela has all the usual selections of meat and vegetarian dishes. But if you eat there, look for its two unique offerings: duba wot, a delectable pumpkin stew; and inguday tibs, a rarely seen dish made with mushrooms. You can get them on your beyaynetu (veggie combo platter) or as one of your side vegetables if you order a meat dish. The restaurant is dry, so bring your own wine (a merlot goes especially well with Ethiopian food). And be patient: The owner/hostess, Hirut Ayele, also supervises the kitchen, and she makes many dishes to order.
Here’s what some of Chicago’s other Ethiopian restaurants have to offer:
♦ Ras Dashen. Two things are unique at this bustling restaurant: The injera bread pudding for dessert, and the proprietress/chef who created it. Zenash Beyene is Beta Israel – that is, an Ethiopian Jew – something rare in America and even rarer in the restaurant business. In my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., I tell some stories that Zenash shared with me about growing up as a religious minority in a country of Christians and Moslems.
♦ Ethiopian Diamond. Now the city’s oldest Ethiopian restaurant, with two locations, it’s very popular, and the North Broadway location has live bands on the weekends. The menu is diverse, and they make their own tej.
♦ Abyssinia. This lovely little place began as a market and then morphed into a restaurant a few years ago. The food is very good, but it’s right beside the older and established Ras Dashen, so you have to make a point of trying it. The owner, Abraha Kidanu, comes from the Tigrayan-speaking region of northern Ethiopia, and he’d some day like to serve some regional dishes at his restaurant – tihlo, for example, which takes a while to make.
♦ Peacock Café. This was the smallest of the city’s restaurants, a place for Chicago’s Eritrean community to gather. It was located on Broadway, not far from the cluster of bigger Ethiopian restaurants, and was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It closed in early 2011, and a sign on the door says that the owners are looking for a new location in the same area on North Broadway.
♦ Royal Coffee. Located on North Sheridan in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood, near Loyola University, and about a mile north of the Broadway restaurant cluster, this Ethiopian-owned coffee shop offers pastries, sandwiches, omelets, and two four-dish Ethiopian platters, one of which includes chechebsa, a seldom-seen Oromo dish. If you’re a coffee drinker, be sure to take home a bag of its brand name Ethiopian coffee.
♦ Demera. With no Ethiopian neighbors, this well-appointed restaurant adds another cuisine to a block that features Chinese, Indian and Mexican places, along with a few pubs and coffee shops. Try the azifa as an appetizer and the creamy, spicy shiro b’kitfo for an unusual entrée.
♦ Blue Nile. Tucked away on a street under a train trestle in Edgewater, this restaurant really isn’t too far from the North Broadway grouping. They once hosted Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy, and they have a menu autographed by him. Feel free to ask for a photocopy.
♦ Awash. This is the city’s newest place, a few blocks up North Broadway from Ethiopian Diamond. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to check it out this summer when I’m Chicago.
One place you won’t find any more is Mama Desta’s Red Sea, Chicago’s first Ethiopian restaurant, which opened in 1984 in the Lakewood neighborhood on North Clark Street and closed in 2009, a victim of the city’s Ethiopian drift north. Lakeview hosted a few other Ethiopian restaurants beginning around the 1990s, but they either closed or moved to the suburbs (Ethio Café is long gone; Addis Abeba is now in Evanston). That left Mama Desta’s alone on North Clark as the North Broadway cluster gradually coaxed its business away. It’s a loss, to be sure, but also part of a great city’s Ethiopian restaurant evolution.
University of Pittsburgh