Believe it or not, we had actually already been to a few Eritrean places (not to mention many more Ethiopian ones) before sampling Den Den in Chicago (6635 N. Clark). Our first experience with Eritrean food was at the venerable Dahlak, way back in Philadelphia, before we had this blog. Philadelphia was where our foodie explorations really went into full swing, so we have a special place for the foods we learned to really like there (Vietnamese, Thai, Eritrean). Since then we have also sampled Eritrean in Washington DC at Keren, the ultimate hotbed of East African food in the US. But back to Chicago – Den Den is a quiet, inviting restaurant with a lot of light coming in from wraparound windows and big wooden tables. The Eritrean menu had a lot of overlap with Ethiopian restaurants in the area, but there were definitely some differences, and we noticed an absence of Wat dishes. And there was even spaghetti with meat sauce, something of an odd duck, but usually available at Eritrean places (and some Ethiopian) due to lingering Italian colonial influence.
We were surprised to learn that Den Den was even open for breakfast – with a few intriguing dishes like Sheh’an Full – beans cooked with tomatoes, onions and ricotta. The lunch/dinner menu was divided into lamb, poultry and veggie dishes, with a variety of herby or spicy sauces. M ordered Spicy Kitfo – beef in a spicy North African berbere sauce and a mild Alicha Derho – chicken with potatoes and carrots in a mild curry. L ordered two vegetarian selections: a mild chickpea shiro and the spicy red lentil tsebhi’i brsen. All of our selections came out a big piece of signature injera bread, with more on the side for sopping everything up (you can also choose bread or rice with your meal- but why!?). Along with our orders we also received salad, cabbage and collared greens. The beef dish was toothsome and flavorful, and the delicious, milder chicken would be a perfect introduction for anyone nervous about trying a foreign cuisine. Both of the veggie dishes were hearty and would please even the staunchest meat eater. Another major plus was that nothing was oily – and all of the entrees were very light.
The meal proceeded at a leisurely place, and we soaked up some coffee at the end (others swear by their house-made honey wine). If you are looking to change up your food routine, and go a step beyond Ethiopian, definitely give Den Den a try. Throughout our meal, the restaurant was pretty quiet, save for the owner’s family and friends. We think Den Den merits a second visit (and more business), and we hope they don’t suffer the same fate as some of our other favorite esoteric restaurants in the city (RIP Masouleh). Give it a try!