by Mike Sula
They had me at Ethiopian-Chinese food. Berbere-spiced General Tso's chicken probably would be a lot more fun to eat with injera instead of balsa-wood chopsticks, but when I heard the three-week-old storefront Lake Langano wasn't serving an Afro-Asiatic mashup but two distinct menus—standard Ameri-Chinese and Ethiopian—I didn't see any reason to rush over any faster than I normally would.
Then it turned out that the little Uptown spot is in fact serving something totally unique to Chicago and very rare across the U.S.
Friend of the Food Chain and Ethiopian food expert Harry Kloman got wind of it all the way in Pittsburgh and dispatched me posthaste to get a taste of qocho. That's a chewy, dense by-product of the enset, or false banana plant, endemic to tropical Africa and Asia, but put to a very particular and ingenious use by Ethiopia's southern Gurage people. When you read Kloman's account of how they make a liquid meal of the trunk and bury it so that it takes on a sourdoughlike tang of varying intensity (depending on the time it spends in the earth), you'll marvel at the human ability to make almost anything edible and nutritious.
According to Kloman, a handful of well-connected D.C.-area restaurants are importing fermented qocho directly from the motherland, and if you take the owner's word at Lake Langano, it's a pretty expensive endeavor. It cost her some $200 just to pay shipping for 23 keys. She serves three slices of it with her otherwise excellent kitfo, very fresh lean beef served nearly raw and seasoned liberally with fiery berbere and the spiced clarified butter niter kibbeh (it's Ethiopian steak tartare). The qocho itself is much chewier and heavier than injera, but with a similarly appealing sourness. Texturally it's closer to west African fufu in its elasticity, but unique.
Lake Langano is set up for takeout mostly, but there are a handful of counter seats to eat in. When my qocho came out a number of heads turned, and a group of fellows remarked at what an old-school thing it was to eat with kitfo. I also had a few bites of shiro—a hummuslike chickpea pulse—which was just as boldly spiced as the kitfo—and a slightly sweet fritter called a pastini that I wouldn't be surprised derives from the colonial Italian influence on Ethiopian food. Based on all that, and by the looks of the stuff the other guys were eating, Lake Langano seems very promising.
Lake Langano, 1023 W. Wilson, 773-336-8522