Keren Kitchen — At Home for Eritrean

Keren Kitchen

Recently, I have made a decision to modify my diet so that I get back to ethnic food and seafood only. There was a point when I indulged friends who wanted to go to a lot of meat-centric American restaurants and my hunger somewhat got out of hand. I noticed that the flat tummy I had achieved was getting a little pudgy again. I simply cannot have that, but I shall not deprive myself of good food either. I can compromise: I shall eat plenty of what not contributing to bloating the bloody tire I had around my waistline.

Injera

Injera

Along with the change in my diet and consistent warmer weather, I am walking more. While strolling through West Lakeview, I wandered past a restaurant that looked very much like something family owned. At 1513 W. Irving Park Road is Keren Kitchen. Mostly Eritrean, there is also a Mexican component to the menu. Having been to DenDen Restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park, I was curious to see if Karen Kitchen would warrant a return visit.

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

I started with qualwa dorho, alicha atar, and past dish. The qualwa dorho came as chicken and tomatoes in a savoury gravy, accented with clarified butter. The alicha atar was very reminiscent of creamed lentils that I have had at several Ethiopian restaurants. The past dish consisted of potatoes, carrots, and green beans. I must say now that I won’t have to travel farther north to Rogers Park for Eritrean food now. Although I was dining solo, the dish was served on injera bread in the cultural manner. Being accustomed to eating Ethiopian food with my fingers, I applied the same technique here, completing the whole platter much to the server’s surprise.

Asa Qulwa

Asa Qulwa

With some room in the tummy, I opted to fill it with asa qualwa. This dish was not served on injera, It came as seasoned, plump tilapia on yellow rice with salad. For every article promoting fear propaganda about tilapia, I doubt the authors of the write-ups have had asa qualwa from Keren Kitchen. They would not write such drivel otherwise. Because this dish was substantial, I had half of it prepared for take-away so that I could enjoy it once more later when I was home.

Hazelnut Ice Cream

Hazelnut Ice Cream

For a dessert, I had hazelnut ice cream drizzled with caramel. Given all that I had eaten already, the ice cream was not only refreshing, but it was also light on the stomach. And because I always have my desserts without nuts, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a nice accent the hazelnuts were. Topping it all off, I took tea with cinnamon and cardamom. I was in heaven, but I was almost there anyway after the first scoop of qualwa dorho.

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

Keren Kitchen opened doors for business November, 2014. The restaurant resides in what looks to have been a house that was converted for restaurant use. Because I did not try anything from the Mexican menu, I shall have to return for a sampling. What I had during my first visit was divine. The Eritrean and Mexican owners are absolutely outstanding, as was the service. During my afternoon visit, the restaurant was not filled, so I had time to talk to them about how Keren Kitchen came to be. And just when I decided to become more disciplined about what I eat, I happen upon this gem. I will become a regular.

Keren Kitchen on Urbanspoon

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Iyanzé — Roots

Iyanzé

When I began my undergraduate studies at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid 80’s, little did I know that the mathematics department and the computer science department were dominated by African and Caribbean students. Being one of the few students then who chose to play hard ball by pursuing a double major in both of those concentrations, I was immersed in the African and Caribbean cultures, being incredibly comfortable in both since I am a product of the two anyway. So, we all studied together. We encouraged each other in our educational track. We formed support groups. We challenged each other. We had fellowship. And oh did we eat together. After long hours of going over lessons, assignments, and preparing for tests, there were equal moments spent in kitchens and over grills having flavourful smoke dancing in the air, food swirling in our bellies, and happiness in surplus.

Today was one of those days that had my days of yore flicker through my mind. The visits to Africa in between summer intern assignments and returning to school. The cultural experience that I would not have had otherwise with other students if I had not bonded with my fellow brothers and sisters. With us all being scattered across the globe and seeing each other on occasional visits, I missed that. And I thought of the dinners that became regular for us. Recent conversation over Skype with one of my greatest college friends brought to mind that I should seek out a Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Considering Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods are teeming with representation from Africa, I knew that there would be no problem finding at least one Nigerian eatery to my liking. True to the Uptown community, there are three all in walking distance of each other. I chose Iyanzé Restaurant at 4623 N. Broadway Street, just off the Wilson Street Red Line stop.

Jollof Rice and Plantains

Jollof Rice and Plantains

With a layout much like a cafeteria, Iyanzé is a laid back kind of restaurant. You order at the counter, selecting a variety of menu items that have been prepared fresh and authentically Nigerian. After looking at the menu, I remembered what my fellow classmates had cooked in their kitchens during our study sessions. I recalled a lot of what I ate to excess in Lagos in 1989. I can still taste remnants of the memories of dishes prepared by many of my Nigerian friends over the years. And I chose four dishes that called out to me and one very daring one that will probably be my only experimental dish for the year — a bit too early to say since it is still January.

Pepper Soup

Pepper Soup

For starting out, and I shall give the daring dish upfront, I had beef pepper soup. Tasty, so very tasty, with beef cubes cooked to the point where you could cut them with plastic forks. Spicy enough to clear my breathing that had been blocked with the cold weather outside. But there is a certain ingredient that I had forgotten until I put my spoon in for the first scoop: tripe. Normally, I would give an exaggerated Ugh! and act up. However, the tripe had been cooked so that it did not have the consistency of a rubber band and it had been seasoned such that it did not taste like a rubber band either. Not that I will have a want for beef pepper soup every time I go into a Nigerian restaurant, but I must say, honestly, that the soup at Iyanzé was a pleasant surprise. The jollof rice was not sticky, which is not a bad thing at all, and it was not overdone or undercooked. Add plantains to that and you have the combination of a winner. Where things really hit a happy tilt was with the tilapia in a red sauce. Granted the tilapia was not filleted. There are bones, bones, small bones, clear bones, fine bones, and more bones in the fish. But the meat, the freshness, the plumpness made the tilapia so much more appetizing. And I washed it all down with a ginger bear. Bliss.

Tilapia in Red Sauce

Tilapia in Red Sauce

After doing all but licking the plates and the soup bowl, I decided to see if I could get a dessert. Unfortunately, Iyanzé does not have dessert fare. That was fine because I saw that they had a certain item that would be fantastic for breakfast. I ordered a few meat pies — pastries filled with seasoned ground beef — for take-away. Before I walked back out into the frosty evening, I opted for another ginger beer. Once you have one good ginger beer, they tend to be rather addictive thereafter. And because it seemed to have been taking rather long for me to get the meat pies and the ginger beer, mostly because the woman behind the counter and I were laughing and joking with each other, the woman behind the kitchen window yelled out, “Hey, you Ghanaian boy, my daughter is not on the menu,” and then a host of individuals in the kitchen started laughing while the daughter was blushing. It was a good laugh for all of us, something very common that I find very inviting within African and Caribbean cultures.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

Before I went to Iyanze, I had read some reviews on a few of the esoteric websites. It pays to put a lot of commentary into perspective because a good bit of the reviews seemed to have come from individuals who were of the suburban ilk who cringe at anything remotely different from chicken fried steak and potatoes. Iyanzé is not a fancy sit-down-and-you-will-be-served restaurant. The authenticity cannot be beaten and where Iyanzé stands out is in the food. Having had food prepared by great friends from Nigeria and having had my feet under numerous tables in Lagos, I can attest that Iyanzé is doing it right. Incredibly reasonable prices make the visit even more worthwhile. You can go anywhere and get mediocre. But you get the absolute best at Iyanzé. You get to experience a lot of what made my undergraduate days so enjoyable.

Iyanze on Urbanspoon

Yassa — Absolument Délicieux

Yassa

This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy did not.
This little piggy had roast beef.
This little piggy had none.
This little piggy went to an African restaurant on the South Side of Chicago with some friends and got stuffed — and no one got shot much to everyone’s chagrin.

The next time someone screams and runs around in circles flailing his or her arms in protest of me going to a restaurant on the South Side to get some culinary satisfaction, this little piggy will clap the individual across the cheek. An adventurous restaurant friend and I, joined by a third individual who appreciates trying something other than McDonald’s, found ourselves at Yassa African Restaurant at 716 West 79th Street in Chicago’s North Chatham neighbourhood. Usually the South Side is known for the vast array of soul food cafés, catfish shacks, and rib joints. Now my people are popping up on the scene and satisfaction has resumed it’s place in my vocabulary.

Fatya

Fatya

Unlike some restaurants where you may get a side of attitude with your entrée, Yassa was worth saying that we’d return just from walking through the doors and having the owner say, “Make yourself at home. Have a seat anywhere you’d like.” And he didn’t say it with disdain. The hostess who came to the table greeted us in French and complete with a smile. My people. Apparently appreciative of good music, there was a three-piece jazz band playing live music in the background. No disc jockey scratching some records. No get-down boogie mama dancing with swivel hips. No lyrics inducing facial expressions of concern. It was all good.

Nem

Nem

What Yassa lacks in aesthetics, it makes it up in spades in the food. We ordered fataya and nem. The fataya were four rather large empanadas — pastries filled with fish and West African spices. Those lovelies would make great snacks for lazy moments at home. The nem were like egg rolls, but stuffed with fish and other spices. This is another item that I will probably order every time I go back to Yassa.

Grilled Tilapia

Grilled Tilapia

My friends and I have a saying that if the appetizers are good, then we know the entrées are certainly going to be good. Well, we were correct and we were wrong in this instance. The appetizers were big hits, but the entrées were not just merely good. They were worthy of licking the plates. Let me just say that the large portions that Yassa serves up to customers are not for the faint of heart. I repeat, the large portions are not for individuals who waste food. We ordered a whole grilled tilapia that came with a week’s supply of the best plantains — aloco — outside of Africa and the West Indies. The fish was so large that it hung off the plate and it was so tasty. The plantains were so good that you would have thought we were land sharks the way we devoured everything except the bones. We ordered dibi lamb, which were grilled lamb chops served with spicy squash and couscous. We ate it all and even got cultural. Forks? Knives? Eating good food like that without using your fingers is insulting. We picked up the meat and dealt with it like men who appreciate good food. Well, that was not enough. We had brochette chicken, which is chicken, peppers, and onions done up shish kabob style and served with atieke and spicy squash. The atieke was yucca prepared like couscous. To wash all of these good eats down, we had sorrel juice and ginger juice. Just thinking about the juice now makes me want to get on the bus and go back right this moment. My people.

Brochette Chicken

Brochette Chicken

I should have mentioned that the plates were the size of party platters. I didn’t think it was possible to serve that amount of food and still stay in business. Then again, seeing how many customers were coming in and out, it then became apparent that as long as the restaurant serves up great food and outstanding service, they could care less about the overwhelming portions. I know that’s a high selling point for me. My people.

One dessert common in Senegal is thiakry and we ordered that after dinner. Thiakry is curdled milk with millet. Think yogurt, but with a dash of Africa thrown in for extra taste. I’ll take it. Given all the food that we had devoured, this was a hearty enough drink to please the tummy while not being stuffed more than what we were already.

Dibi Lamb

Dibi Lamb

For all of the food, juice, and dessert that we ordered, how much do you think we paid? How much do you think we should have paid? When we looked at the tab, we wondered if the waitress had forgotten something. The price is incredibly inexpensive, especially when you take into consideration the large portions of food that you receive. Then again, it’s not the price that matters as much as the satisfaction that you get. The faces of the customers and the silence of my growling belly were true indications of how great Yassa African Restaurant is. We went. We ate. We three little piggies exhaled all the way home. And we’ve already made plans to go back, even if it is the only restaurant on the South Side that will give my business to. Am I wrong for that? My belly says, “No.” My people.

Yassa African Restaurant on Urbanspoon