January 20, 2004

The eateries of Chicago: a short journay can take you a long way

Growing up in the Midwest, one's idea of comfort food can grow pretty narrow. As winter blusters into the Windy City with its typically freezing temperatures, mine revolves more and more around large bowls of my mom's homemade chicken soup. Recently, I realized that one person's exotic, cutting-edge cuisine is another's old-fashioned, tried-and-true peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This rather bland statement—a truism nevertheless—is one of the great things about living in a large city that has so many different types of food available. Even if they're not exactly at your fingertips here in Hyde Park, many of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods are close enough to make culinary adventures a bus fare away.

Intent on trying someone else's idea of comfort food instead of attempting my mom's chicken soup recipe in my dorm kitchen (part of the recipe involves sticking one's hand into a chicken's body cavity to remove certain non-desirable internal organs), my house and I headed intrepidly out into the city, looking a bit like microwaved marshmallows in our winter gear. Our destination was Ras Dashen, an Ethiopian restaurant that boasts, "Comfort food from the mountains of Ethiopia," which a friend suggested because of the marriage between good food and reasonable prices. You can eat very well for about $15, even with tax and tip (entrées range from $9.95 to $13.95). The restaurant is named after the tallest mountain in Ethiopia, and Zenash, the restaurant's chef, grew up near the Simien Mountains, of which Ras Dashen is a part.

Getting to the restaurant felt a little like heading an expedition to Ethiopia. We caught the Garfield #55 bus to a Red Line train and rode to the Thorndale stop. Then we did some wandering until we reached Ras Dashen at 5846 North Broadway Street. The whole trek took us a little more than an hour, but don't let that discourage you from trying this wonderful little restaurant.

Piling through the door to escape the wind, we crowded into the smallish restaurant and stripped our coats like snakes shedding their skins. Ras Dashen serves its food in the traditional Ethiopian manner. This ultimately means that you'd better have chummy feelings for those you go with—you'll all be eating from a single, table-sized round tray.

Even though the menu gives ordering directions, confusion ensued when we tried our hand at it. Luckily, you won't look quite as foolish as we did when you go once you understand the basics. Like typical American restaurants, everyone orders an entrée. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. I highly suggest making sure than each person can eat what everyone else has ordered because all the entrées are served on the communal tray I mentioned earlier. We learned this the hard way when our tray arrived, and no one could figure out which part of the plate contained this or that entrée. Be forewarned: this is not an experience for picky eaters or those who are unwilling to get their fingers dirty (literally).

After everyone has chosen entrées, each table gets to decide on three side dishes, which will also be served on the communal tray. Since we had so many people and were seated at three tables, we got to try a little of everything.

We nursed drinks while we waited for our food, particularly the Ethio chai, a black, spiced tea that is definitely worth trying. Ras Dashen serves its chai in generous teapots that hold at least four cups. Our food arrived on circular trays lined with injera, Ethiopian bread similar to a crepe but thicker. Injera tastes very much like sourdough bread. Don't worry too much if you're not a huge fan of sourdough, though, since the sauces and tastes from the dishes served on top of the injera mask the taste of the bread itself. Our food was arranged like dabs of paint on a painter's palette, and extra bread, to be torn off and used in place of utensils, was served in baskets. Of the 12 available side dishes, we especially liked the ib, a soft, white cheese that tasted like goat cheese; the qosta, spinach cooked with onions, garlic, and spices; and the misser wat, a dish of lentils in a spicy berbere, or red pepper sauce. As the kitchen finished with the entrées, our waiter poured them out of their bowls into empty spaces on the trays.

Once the food arrived, all that was left to do was dive in. We tried to forget the downside to eating communal food—one person's cold is everyone's cold the next day. If you can let go of your desire for clean fingers and knowing exactly what you're eating, you'll have a blast. For the first few minutes, it was as though the trays were drops of blood among sharks—our table resembled a feeding frenzy. Soon, however, frantic tasting of everything gave way to conversation and a less hurried mode of eating. The food was wonderful, and it was especially fun to be able to try a little of everything that everyone had ordered. Instead of worrying whether or not to order the chicken or the lamb, we got the opportunity to have it all. None of the dishes were particularly spicy—despite the menu's warnings—and we took turns going around the table pointing out what we did or didn't like.

Finally, we pushed ourselves from the table and bundled back into layers of clothes for the trip home. Among the 12 of us, we left the restaurant with four containers of leftovers, which goes to show you that comfort food isn't just about mom's chicken soup.