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I'm all about adventure at lunch and dinner, but I admit that I'm hidebound at breakfast. My willingness to accept a food as breakfast before I've had my coffee usually depends on the degree to which it resembles American breakfast on some basic level—egginess, porridge-like consistency, a hint of sweetness, something. So I was surprised that this bowl of foull, as they spell it at Keren Kitchen, a sunny new Eritrean restaurant near Irving and Ashland, made sense to me as breakfast food. Eritrea's version of the mashed fava bean dish found at Middle Eastern restaurants—where it's often soupier—came with a baguette-like wheat bread, likely due to the Italian presence in Eritrea (a former part of Ethiopia), as well as bits of hard-boiled egg, tomato, onion, goat cheese, and jalapenos, and a dash of berbere pepper. It was served with olive oil, though you also have the choice of tesmi, which is a clarified butter like ghee, but cooked with spices before it separates.
And it seemed like a pretty good breakfast, maybe because it had that bit of egg and the comfortingly mushy quality. I liked it better than most side-dish fouls I've had in Middle Eastern restaurants, which are usually bland if not worse (I remember writing about one once that I said was so bland it actually took flavor away from the grilled chicken it came with). This had a variety of kicks, enough to be interesting with every bite even as it was, basically, a simple spread for the bread.
Not that I'm any great expert on Ethiopian or Eritrean food, but in general that's what I like about it. At first it may seem like dialed-down Indian food, but maybe because of the way it's served—communally on the spongy bread called enjera—it has a comforting feel, it feels like a satisfying reward after a day of hard work.
The hard work at Keren Kitchen belongs to Fortuna Fekadu, who opened the restaurant on November 16. (My friend Ken Zuckerberg, who'd found it, and I were apparently the first customers that day.) She came to the U.S. in 1991 and worked in various restaurants over the years, most recently spending several years as a hostess at Market House, the now-closed restaurant in the Doubletree Hotel downtown. She's not the cook, but the restaurant is run to her vision of fresh, scratch-made food.
There's a printed menu, but so far only some of it is being made each day, and it's probably more effective just to ask what they have—an assortment of vegetable or lentil dishes with a slight curry-like seasoning, and maybe a single beef or lamb stew. She has more plans—she talks about recently hiring a Mexican chef to offer American and Mexican dishes—but, really, unless you know the cuisine well yourself, just asking "what's good today?" is as good a way to go as any. I guess, given that much of the traffic she'll have will be cab drivers, that it will make sense to have cheeseburgers and burritos alongside kilwa begee, though the second time I went there was a party of about ten cabbies there, all happily digging into the food of home.
The name comes from the town she grew up in—Keren, population 147,000, which makes it the second largest city in Eritrea. I point to a picture on the wall of farmers next to surprisingly log cabin-like huts under towering palm trees. Is that what Keren looks like, I ask? "Kind of," she says. "That's actually from the Thai restaurant that used to be here. But, yes, Eritrea kind of looks like that."
Keren Kitchen, 1513 W. Irving Park