Asmara Cafe

6511 N. Clark773-338-9650

Like their Ethiopian neighbors, Eritreans eat with their hands, scooping up spicy meat or vegetable stews with scraps of injera, a flat, sour, spongy bread. So when two Eritrean cabdrivers greeted each other at Asmara Cafe on a recent afternoon, they didn’t shake–they bumped fists. Then they sat down to sip some tea. Asmara’s owner, Kidane Mihtsun, poured me a cup as well, and told me how he came from Asmara–Eritrea’s capital, a city of piazzas, palm trees, and art deco hotels–to this storefront on a dingy block in Rogers Park.

“Because of the war,” he said, meaning Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, which ended in 1991. “A lot of Eritreans were displaced all over the world. During the war I was forced to join the Ethiopian army. My brother was on the other side, fighting for independence for my country. The only choice I had was to flee. I left my country in 1987.”

Mihtsun’s brother Gebrihiwet was killed in the fighting. Mihtsun ended up in Sudan, where he spent four years before a cousin in Chicago sponsored him for a visa. It was there that he learned to cook. Back home in Asmara, he said, he’d been spoiled by the women in his family. But in Sudan he had to make his own breakfast. Most mornings he ate ful mudammas–mashed fava beans seasoned with cumin, tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos–or kitcha fitfit–chunks of chewy spiced flatbread eaten with thick yogurt.

“Kitcha is in every household,” Mihtsun said. “When I was in Sudan, around ten o’clock, everybody eats this.” Mihtsun now opens Asmara at ten each morning to serve ful and kitcha. Many of his regulars are Sudanese.

He pointed to the unopened bag of Stash tea beside my half-empty cup. “You going to drink your tea?” he asked.

“I thought I was drinking tea. It tastes like tea.”

“No, this is just the water. It has cinnamon, with clove. You are supposed to put the tea bag in it.”

Mihtsun made a promising start in America. After earning an associate’s degree at Truman College, he found work assembling computers for Panasonic. But when he was laid off, he resorted to driving a cab. Because he was good at math, Mihtsun began filling out IRS forms for fellow drivers, then got a tax preparer’s license and opened an office on far-north Clark Street, next to Choice Taxi, which employs many Eritreans. Of course, the tax business is only seasonal.

“I signed a year’s lease,” he lamented. “I have to pay rent for the full year, so what do I do with the other eight months? I decided to open a restaurant. My wife is a good cook. She has the magic touch.” Mihtsun’s wife, Yordanos Sibhatu, does much of the cooking at the cafe, which opened in July.

Eritrean cuisine is similar to Ethiopian–except for the pasta. The country was an Italian colony for the first half of the 20th century, and during that time Eritreans learned to eat as the Romans do. Asmara’s menu includes spaghetti and mostaccioli in a tomato sauce spiced with berbere, a paste of red chile peppers, paprika, cardamom, and basil. (The green salad that accompanies meals is served with Wishbone Italian dressing.)

“We eat spaghetti with forks, just like Italians,” Mihtsun said. “Everything else we eat with our hands. The main thing is, people like to eat together. It’s not one person, one plate. If there’s a family–mom, dad, five kids–we sit around the plate and everybody eats from the same dish.”

Mihtsun went into the kitchen and returned with a platter of tibsi derho, cubed chicken sauteed with berbere, onions, jalapenos, and rosemary–another Italian influence. He invited me to taste it.

I’m not well practiced at eating Ethiopian or Eritrean food. My injera technique is clumsy: I tear off a wide strip and wield it like a first baseman’s mitt, trapping the meat and vegetables in a deep pocket. As a result, my bread-to-food ratio is too high. I’m usually full before I’ve finished the entrees, not to mention vegetable sides like sauteed spinach, slices of cooked carrot and red pepper, or a complex dish of spicy red lentils.

Mihtsun is as dexterous as a one-handed baker. Detaching a tiny corner of injera, he pushed the food in with his thumb, then folded it into a packet that looked like a bite-size samosa.

“People need to be told first how to do it,” said his friend Petros Tensae, who was hanging out at a nearby table. “But it’s fun.”

I had the leftovers boxed up. I’ll practice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.