What’s the difference between Eritrean and Ethiopian food? “Spaghetti,” Michael Mezengi tells me. Makes sense. Before it declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea, bordered by Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia, was an Italian colony from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. The spaghetti stuck. So did both Italy and Ethiopia’s love of coffee.
As Mezengi gives an account of his three decades in Chicago since leaving Eritrea, his wife, Ilen, squats before a small stove in the front area of their Rogers Park restaurant, Den Den. She shakes a pot back and forth over the burner, rattling the Ethiopian coffee beans inside as they turn from green to chocolaty brown. The scent of coffee wafts into the air and mingles with perpetually burning incense. Ilen then grinds the beans, adds them to water in a clay pot known as a jebena, then sets it on the burner to percolate. “She will do this three times,” Mezengi says. “That’s the custom. We’ll drink three cups, and we’ll eat popcorn because you can’t have one without the other.”
It’s the same coffee ritual you’ll find in most Ethiopian restaurants, and Den Den’s menu, slightly expanded from the version at the Mezengis’ former restaurant, Peacock, which they ran for a decade until it was razed to make way for the Edgewater Public Library expansion, may look familiar as well. But while much of the food is identical to the area’s Ethiopian restaurants, the Eritrean community sees the differences and embraces them: wat (stewed meat in chili paste) is listed as tsebhi, tej (honey wine) is called mess, and conversation among Mezengi’s coffee-sipping brethren from his cabbie years is in Tigrinya, the most common language of Eritrea.
Ilen brings out platters brimming with softened spinach, creamy lentils, pieces of hen and hardboiled egg soaked through with the gingery, garlicky chili paste berbere. Since the move to the new space (“the fresh start,” as Mezengi calls it), Ilen has also added breakfast dishes like silsi, eggs scrambled in oniony tomato sauce, and a frittata dotted with ricotta. More Italian influence? “Maybe, but these are ours so long as they are Eritrean,” Mezengi says. “Like me, I’ve been in Chicago longer than I was in Eritrea and had three children here, so I am American. But here, in Den Den, we are Eritrean.”