Tesfa: Keeping the new-old vision of Chicago alive


Credit to Tesfa cuisine's website

Tesfa Ethiopian Cuisine is a family run restaurant located on Wilson Ave.

Tesfa means hope. The word Tesfa originates from the Amharic language widely spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea. In Uptown Chicago, it graces the wall in front of a family owned restaurant, Tesfa Ethiopian Cuisine. 

“My mother loves cooking, and we always had people over at our home,” said Tesfa Ethiopian Cuisine owner Samuel Sake. “I felt that it was right for her to have her own place.”

With his mother, brother, and others, Sake opened Tesfa Ethiopian Cuisine at 1023 W Wilson Ave, Uptown Chicago in 2016. As the restaurant grew popular in the area, enjoying features on Chicago’s Best, and other food review sites, the family expanded its dining area to accommodate more customers.

Traditionally, Ethiopian food is served in a communal plate, the size of a pizza pan. The food is usually meant to be shared family style and eaten with hands, but guests at Tesfa can dine in alone, or order take-out. In a group, each guest can have a taste of everything on the plate, sometimes even feeding each other, a traditional gesture of kindness and respect in Ethiopia known as ‘gursha’.

The menu at Tesfa is versatile, with different options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meal options mostly include the injera bread served with wots, traditional stews cooked with different meats and vegetables. 

Injera bread is a gluten-free, tangy and spongy texture pancake like flat-bread made from teff flour. Teff is a healthy grain with dietary fibers and nutrients like protein, lysine and amino acids. The bread is used as a spoon to scoop up colorful stews like the doro-wot, a chicken and egg stew spiced with berbere or the yemisir wot, a vegan option with lentils cooked Ethiopian style with spices added.

Tesfa is just as colorful and vibrant as the meals they serve. The walls are a bright green and red colors of the Ethiopian flag adorned with vibrant paintings that tell a story of Africa. A lone curtain separates the waiting room from the dining area, where speakers blast Ethiopian music videos played on a screen. 

West Wilson Avenue is a bustling busy street lined with apartment buildings, and fast food restaurants on one side of the street. Across the street from the Wilson station, Tesfa sits on the sidewalk in the middle of Makola African supermarket and Osas African Restaurant.  

Another thing Tesfa is known for is its complimentary tea. Customers receive free refills of the aromatic tea throughout their meal.

“My mother would always say you can’t let your guest leave your house without giving water or tea,” Sake said. “We took that saying into our restaurant. We want you to feel like I am coming to Mama’s T’s [Sakes’ mom] house or Sam and Moses’ [Chef and Sakes’ brother] house.” 

Next to Jamaica and Haiti, Nigeria and Ethiopia are the largest African immigrant groups in Chicago. As of 2019, there are 390,000 Nigerians and 290,000 Ethiopians residing in Chicago, according to Pew Research Center. 

The popularity of Ethiopian Cuisine continues to ascend as more people explore food in Chicago. Tesfa is one of the top rated Ethiopian cuisines that has amassed hundreds of positive reviews.

DePaul history professor, Authens Oppong Wadie, also a long time customer of Tesfa, includes visitation of the restaurant as a requirement for students in her seminar class on race/power/and resistance. The class studies Chicago Ethiopianism amongst other topics and offers a multicultural reality of the Black experience in Chicago.

Wadie attributes Tesfa’s success to the fact that Ethiopia was never colonized and Ethiopians take pride in the originality of every aspect of their culture. 

“They are not only sharing food, they are also sharing culture and art,” Wadie said. “They are bringing healthy food and reawakening the tastes of everybody to what healthy food can taste like.”

Visiting Tesfa for the first time is Uptown resident Katie and a friend. 

“I am excited to experience the soul food aspect of Ethiopian food.” Katie said.. “My friend and I googled this place and decided to try it, so this would be my first time at an African restaurant.”

“We want people to come and connect with one another,” Sakes said. “Ethiopian food is more like sharing, and you can strengthen your relationship with friends over a meal.”

For many first time guests like Katie, Tesfa is a unique opportunity to get a traditional African dining experience. 

Wadie encourages her students to delve into African Cuisine and experience the differences in culture that makes up Chicago. “This is a new vision of Chicago that is rather old, a place where people of differences can  get along,” Wadie said.

In a report published in 2018 by the CDC, one in three of American adults consumed fast food on a given day between 2013 and 2016, which is about 36.6% of the population. 

A study published in 2015 by the Lancet revealed that Sub-Saharan and West African countries have better diets than countries in Western Europe and North America. 

“The impact of Blackness on this city is capable,” Wadie said. “We really have no Chicago without Africans and African Americans.”