Forgoing the Fork at Ras Dashen in Chicago
There's just nothing exactly like an Ethiopian dinner. The first time I ever tried the cuisine, the server brought a silver platter large enough to crowd the table. Atop this lay a giant, somewhat concrete-colored, pockmarked pancake interspersed with steaming dollops of saucy somethings.
Seeing none on the table, we asked for forks. The server gestured at a little basket he'd brought along, which was heaped with more pancakes folded like the cloth napkins we were about to desperately need. He said, somewhat grandly, "This is your fork!"
Ras Dashen is one of a handful of solid Ethiopian restaurants you'll find tucked away in the city's far northeastern neighborhoods, and its atmosphere is arguably the coziest for an evening dinner. The narrow, art-filled space has a mix of regular tables and Ethiopian mesobs, which are tall, flat-topped woven baskets you sit around on stools.
As in all Ethiopian restaurants, this is your fork: a spongy, fermented—and, in my opinion, incredibly delicious—teff flatbread called injera. Every bite of your meal is scooped and eaten using a piece of hand-torn injera, so not surprisingly, if you don't like the tart-yogurt flavor of the bread, you probably don't like Ethiopian food.
A note for those with gluten restrictions: wheat flour is cut in with the naturally gluten-free teff. Just call Ras Dashen at least 24 hours in advance and they'll ensure you get a basket of teff-only injera.
The entrees range from stews similar in appearance to Indian curries (menu decoder: anything that ends with "wat" or "alicha") to a variety of meats ("tibs"). Although the lentil sambusas ($4.95) are pretty good at Ras Dashen, I'd bypass the relatively minor appetizer list in favor of trying more entrees or sides.
A lamb dish called yebeq dereq tibs ($24.95) came recommended, and went over well with those who are either suspicious of spice or beginners to this East African cuisine. The moist, flavorful chunks of meat are sautéed with a sort of Ethiopian mirepoix of green peppers, onions, garlic, and whole rosemary sprigs.
To get the real Ethiopian experience, though, you want something that says "berbere" in the description. Ras Dashen's take on the traditional chili, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, fenugreek, et al. spice mix is warm, aromatic, rich, and spicy, and could make cardboard taste amazing. In that vein, there's the spicy doro wat, "the national dish of Ethiopia," with chunks of chicken and a hard-boiled egg swimming in berbere sauce. While I'm usually a fan of the vegetarian shimbera asa wat ($13.95), I thought the nubs made from chickpea dough at Ras Dashen were a bit dry. But there are plenty of other options for non-meat eaters; the misser wat, a lentil side dish you can upgrade to a main for just $11.95, or dupa wat ($14.95), with pumpkin and potatoes, are on-key and still give you the joy that is berbere.
Each entrée comes with a side, and the servers will confidently recommend something complementary. The gomen, slow-cooked greens; tikil gomen alicha, potatoes and cabbage in a mild, turmeric-laced stew; and ib, a soft buttermilk cheese made fresh daily; are all delicious.
This is perhaps the most communal meal there is, so the more, the merrier, especially when each person means an extra dish you get to try. Fair warning, though; you'll have more competition for what is, at the end of the meal, perhaps the best part: that intensely flavorful, greasy, sauce-soaked injera at the bottom of the platter.