Upon entering Selam Ethiopian Kitchen, the richness of the rosemary in the air is rivaled only by that of the red walls that define the cavernous dining room. Groups gather around large, round dishes of injera adorned with delectable toppings of meats, vegetables, and legumes.
For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, injera is a large type of sourdough flatbread upon which thick stews, or wat, are served. This style and method of eating is, to say the least, hands-on. Diners take the injera in their hands, which the chef referred to as “natural forks,” and scoop bites of whichever wat strikes their fancy. As if a painter’s palette, the injera is host to a range of colors, aromas, and – you guessed it – flavors: orange lentils, green lamb, brown chicken, and white cheese decorated my dish, though the palette’s contents are at the artists’ discretion.
I was greeted by the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Selamawit “Selam” Abebe, and owner, Solomon Abebe. They are a lovely couple, both warm and welcoming. As I had fasted in anticipation of the meal, the savory fumes taunted my appetite – onion, peppers, and seemingly countless spices made for a very distracted interviewer. In speaking with Solomon, it was his attention to these ingredients (and authenticity) that blew me away. All of their vegetables are organic, and all of their spices (and even butter) are sourced from Ethiopia itself. Especially considering that meat is often consumed raw in this cuisine, it must be high-quality and fresh. And who better to source it than an experienced butcher such as Solomon. Upon entering the establishment, one passes a small butcher’s window that he still operates, carving meats for both the customers their own kitchen. To quote Solomon, “this is the best food you can get in the whole United States.”
In addition to (and a function of) top-shelf ingredients, Solomon takes pride in their expert preparation, particularly that of the injera, made of fermented teff flour and indubitably the staple food of Ethiopia. If prepared improperly, this bread may result in bloating and an upset stomach, but certainly not at Selam Ethiopian Kitchen. Indeed, customers, particularly the robust market of 20,000+ Ethiopians in the area (according to Solomon), often stop by to pick up only the bread to take home for their own cooking and pleasure. All in all, this competitive advantage relative to other local establishments is not a result of fortuity, but rather experience, expertise, and extensive due diligence. Solomon recounted that prior to opening shop, he and his wife surveyed other restaurants in the area and conducted their own market research, rating every dish at every restaurant on their radar. As such, it’s no surprise that they’re well-aware of their superior quality, vending their bread both locally and internationally.
Like many immigrants to the United States, Solomon’s story is one of determination and hard work in the face of adversity. Aged 23, he fled Ethiopia in 1985 after famine struck the country in 1983, displacing millions internally and thousands externally. As a refugee in Sudan, he worked as a cook at the U.S. Embassy, teaching himself to cook what he described as “American food” – omelets, casseroles and the like. At 32, he fled Sudan in 1996 as civil war ravaged the country, arriving in Chicago and settling in the Uptown area. Solomon enrolled in pharmacy school, driving a taxi when his studies permitted. All the meanwhile, he and Selam enjoyed cooking at home, eventually deciding to open a small butcher shop. It was there that Selam began to cook more and more for their customers, inspiring the couple to open a restaurant after receiving glowing feedback and ringing endorsements for 7 years. All the meanwhile, the couple grew their family from 2 to 6, their children now aged 19, 15, 8, and 4, helping around the restaurant on occasion. Selam Ethiopian Kitchen has now been open for a couple of years, growing its customer base of those seeking healthy and authentic food that meets Solomon and Selam’s highest standards.
Discussing food and cooking with Solomon, I saw his face light up as he boasted (as humbly as one can) that their food is “very healthy [and] very delicious.” Indeed, food is about much more than satisfying hunger in his eyes: “we try to make happiness by eating our food…you have to get something out of it…happiness and health.” When asked about the challenges of running a restaurant, a notoriously tricky business, Solomon remarked that it is an all-consuming occupation that requires attention all day every day. That said, there’s no doubting his dedication, ability, and care to bring a piece of his homeland to his new home here in Chicago.
It was a distinct pleasure to meet and speak with Solomon and Selam. For anyone interested in a varied platter (as I was), they offer a diverse “meat sampler” with doro wot, yebeg wot, yeberé wot, and zizil tibs, all of which were delicious (their signature dish is their short ribs, or goden tibs). I can’t recommend enjoying their exceptional food enough!
Selam Ethiopian Kitchen
4543N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
Tuesday - Thursday: 11AM - 11PM
Friday - Sunday: 11AM - 2AM
The author is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.