Where does coffee culture come from? Italy, mostly, I suppose, with other European countries not far behind. But where does coffee come from? Java (which became slang for it), Colombia, Ethiopia, Nicaragua—in short, the colonies, not the colonizers. So what is coffee culture like in those places? I don't really know, but you can get a little sense of it up in Rogers Park at a spot called Royal Coffee.
At first glance it looks like any cafe for coffee and wi-fi, with a breakfast menu of the American standards and sandwiches and panini for lunch. But then you notice signage on the walls which make it look a little like a trade show booth, talking up the virtues of single-origin coffee from Ethiopia. The cafe, it turns out, is run by an importer—you can buy beans on the spot—and more to the point, besides a very nice cuppa joe, it offers a small but intriguing menu of Ethiopian dishes. If you've never sampled Chicago's African food (which is prevalent in this area), it's a very accessible entry point—if one that may be more aimed at, and priced for, non-Africans.
The most curiosity-provoking thing might be Ethiopian breakfast, which gives you two choices—a sampler of Ethiopian stews or a plate of eggs doctored up with African spices. As with the chole bhatura I wrote about a few weeks back, little about this fits our paradigm of what breakfast should be like (sweet and eggy). There's a little bowl of plain cracked wheat, one of some kind of flatbread that's been fried hard, a spicy strew of brown fava beans, and some injera, the spongy Ethiopian bread, cooked with beef wat (stew). And some injera to scoop it up with, which raises the question, do you scoop up the injera with injera? (Hey, we eat biscuits with gravy, flour with flour on it, which is nearly as redundant.)
I liked the beans the best, the injera stew nearly as much; the cracked wheat was no more or less than that and the fried flatbread was too hardened to eat well.
I was more satisfied on another visit with the vegetarian lunch platter, which goes for the same $10. The yellow dish that looks like corn was split yellow peas in a coconut curry-like sauce; the red one is red lentils; there were also green beans in a spicy sauce, and some cooked greens.
My companion also wanted to order kifto, billed as steak tartare but actually warmed with butter and spices and served with a feta-like cheese.
All of this was flavorful and interestingly spiced, not too hot but bright, like a good Indian buffet. Did any of it have a natural affinity with coffee? I'm not sure, but it wasn't off base, either, and both meals made for an interesting look inside a foreign land that brings us one of our most domestic daily pleasures.