I’ve been putting off this post for quite a while now, because I do not know how to approach Indian cuisine with words that will do justice to this complex, delicious cuisine that has such a vast cultural and historical background. I love Indian food, and here is my unique culinary experience on Devon Ave, Chicago’s Little India.
Devon Ave is quite unlike any other parts of Chicago that I’ve been to. It is a street settled by many immigrant groups, notibly Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans, hence the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani restaurants on the street. It’s definitely not your typical touristy, glamorous neighborhoods near the Loop, or the hipstery, chic ones like Wicker Park and Logan Square. A walk down Devon Ave and you see salons that offer henna tattoo drawings, grocery stores with bags of basmati rice stacked behind the windows, and more shop signs with the word “naan” than you’ve ever seen before. Devon Ave is more functional and down-to-earth, a place that obviously serves as a community for the local residents.
Twice I’ve been to Devon Ave, and twice I went to Ghareeb Nawaz, an Indian/Pakistani hole-in-the-wall that I like to call the Indian version of Joy Yee’s. Food is cheap, (almost everything on the menu is under $6), and the portions are HUGE. The name Ghareeb Nawa literally translates to “sustainer of the poor,” so I guess that explains the ridiculously cheap prices and big portions. The interior of the restaurant is spacious and minimal – plain benches and tables, and a counter for you to place your order and grab plastic spoons and forks (no knives). Although the decor may be underwhelming and the service basic, their food is anything but.
Beef Biryani ($4.99)
Biryani is a mixed rice dish that consists of spiced basmati rice and meat or vegetables. The rice is typically spiced with cardamom, mace, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, and a bunch of other stuff. This dish was so aromatic and wonderfully spiced, and the shredded, marinated beef was tender and slightly chewy, adding that savory kick to the rice. The dish came with a side yogurt, and I liked dipping the rice into the yogurt to cool down the spices.
Lamb Biryani ($5.99)
Same biryani rice, except this one had large chunks of lamb meat in it. I’m not a lamb person but these lamb cubes were marinated deliciously and I happily finished up this dish with my friend, Harry.
Butter Chicken Boneless ($4.99)
Chunks of chicken drenched in a creamy curry sauce – paired it with some naan and I was a happy, happy girl. This curry was so mildly spiced I didn’t taste any spiciness at all, but that didn’t affect its tastiness. I loved the buttery aftertaste that wasn’t too heavy on the tongue but was enough to add some richness to the dish.
Add only $1 and you get 2 large pieces of naan! Woa.
Chicken Khorma ($3.99)
The korma cooking style is basically the same thing as braising – searing the meat or vegetable in high heat and then have it cooked slowly in a closed container. If there was one dish that failed to impress, it was this. This dish served chicken thighs braised in a spiced sauce that was very greasy, and lacked the depth and complexity that you can find in other dishes. Both my friend, Yadanar, and I agreed that this was a very “meh” dish.
Ghareeb Nawaz is also known for their chili chicken, which I will try for sure the next I visit there. And this place is open 24/7, too. Drunchies, anyone?
I was pretty much stuffed by the time I stepped out of the restaurant, but there’s no way I would have gone back home without some sweet treats to complete the trip. Thank goodness my friend Yadanar was with me the first time I visited Devon, because she knows a lot more about Southeast Asian food than I do and without her I would’ve been so clueless. We stopped by several bakeries and sweets shop, and I was exposed to a whole new world of desserts that I’ve never seen before.
For one thing, Indian desserts are very, very sweet. The cham cham, a traditional, milk-based Bengali sweet, has a slightly coarse, spongy texture, almost grainy yet still smooth on the tongue. Its taste isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle – the pungent, milky sweetness hits you straightaway, and there’s no mistaking how much milk and sugar is in that tiny piece of cham cham. If you have a sweet tooth, this is for you.
Perhaps I did look very curious and confused at all the different variety of treats, but the owner was very kind and offered us different samples. I tried the sohan papdi (crisp, flaky and chickpea-based), ajmeri kalakand (made with sweetened milk and cottage cheese) and habshi halwa (brown in color and very nutty). All I can say about them is that they are, ahem, sweet. Something I would try but not necessarily an everyday-thing for me.
We went to another bakery, a Pakistani place and this time we tried the faluda. This little weirdo is jaw-dropping. It’s interesting, complicated, and very delicious, though it did take me several mouthfuls to get acquired to it. A faluda is a popular Indian beverage that mixes rose syrup, vermicelli, basil seeds, tapioca pearls, gelatin pieces with milk, and the faluda I had was topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream. Yep, there’s a lot going on in the cup. It’s like milkshake but with noodles and seeds in it. Each slurp brings in a different surprise – the slippery vermicelli, the crunchy seeds, a hint of artificial rosiness from the syrup. The texture was unique mixture of everything, and before I knew it I finished the entire cup.
If you are looking for an ethnic, culinary adventure, Devon Ave is the place to be.