Here and Now: Ethiopian Diamond is hidden gem

Amber Gibson

After immigrating to the United States with her older brother when she was just 16, Almaz Yigizaw toiled at Norris University Center’s food court for 11 years. Now she runs Ethiopian Diamond, arguably the largest and most successful Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago.

“We are in the center of the African community here,” Yigizaw says with a gap-toothed smile.

A focus on fresh and authentic food, frequently accompanied by live music and dance performances, has helped Ethiopia Diamond flourish in Edgewater’s vibrant immigrant community. Most of Yigizaw’s employees are from Ethiopia, and she chatters to them in Amharic as she darts around the restaurant like a hummingbird, taking care of customers and overseeing the kitchen.

“I do my business from my heart,” Yigizaw says. “Money comes later.”

Yigizaw roasts and grinds her coffee fresh every morning and also makes injera bread in house. Injera is made with whole grain teff, the smallest grain in the world that resembles grains of sand. Teff is both gluten-free and a complete protein source, recently becoming a trendy health food used in everything from cereal to tortillas. While teff used to be hard to find, Yigizaw now buys her teff flour from Wisconsin and says the higher demand has reduced the price to just half of what she paid last year. You can find some yourself from Bob’s Red Mill at Whole Foods if you want to try making your own injera. It’s a little like making a crepe, but remember to let the batter ferment.

No matter if you prefer the spicy watt stews or milder alicha, you’ll use spongey injera bread instead of utensils to grab each bite. Injera has a mild, nutty, sourdough flavor that complements everything from fresh minced beef (kitfo) served rare to marinated chicken legs with hard boiled egg (doro watt). Vegetarians and vegans have many options too, from chopped spinach (quosta) to spicy red lentils (yemisir watt) reminiscent of barbeque beans.

Even lightweight drinkers should try the honey wine, which is subtly sweet and not too strong. You can also feel free to BYOB for a $5 corkage fee. The large menu may be daunting, but your best bet is to order a sampler combination. A meal for two with appetizers, entrees and drinks costs less than $50.

Aside from the fried appetizer sambusas stuffed with minced meat or vegetables, spice-filled Ethiopian cuisine is a healthy alternative to Buffalo Wild Wings or Lou Malnati’s.

For dessert, skip the chocolate lava cake that is purchased from Sysco Foods for the more authentic destaye, translated on the menu as “my happiness.” The dessert is made with the same fried dough shells as sambusas, but instead of meat and veggies it’s filled with a mixture of raisins, pistachios, almonds, coconut and cardamom powder, which all adds up to a dessert that is crunchy and not too sweet. Yigizaw admits that dessert is not so important in her country – Ethiopians prefer spicy to sweet.

Yigizaw has hosted events for aldermen and Sen. Dick Durbin, and she is proud to serve Ethiopia’s traditional cuisine to native Africans and dining dilettantes alike.

“I welcome everybody,” she says. “I want people to know more about Ethiopian food, cooking and culture.”

Ethiopian Diamond is located at 6120 N. Broadway in Chicago.

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