Chicago Eats

From curried catfish to baba ghanouj, Chicago serves up what may be the finest ethnic cuisine going

The predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood was once predominantly Czech. Across Chicago, says Juana Guzman of Pilsen's National Museum of Mexican Art, "food is an important cultural anchor." (Tim Klein)
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Meanwhile, the owner, George Koril, kept busy constructing a fresh ziggurat of shawarma, layering slabs of thinly sliced raw beef onto a vertical spit capped by a ripe tomato. To me it looked like the Tower of Babel.


Earlier that evening, Evelyn Thompson had guided me through a fair sampling of the ethnic groceries that are, so to speak, her bread and butter. Nowhere is Chicago's diversity more evident than on West Devon Avenue, which has become the main thoroughfare of the South Asian community. Devon is so well known in India that villagers in remote parts of Gujarat recognize the name.

But it's not all about India and Pakistan. Crammed with restaurants, markets and shops, neon-lit Devon induces a kind of ethnic vertigo. There's La Unica market, founded by Cubans and now sporting Colombian colors; Zapp Thai Restaurant, which used to be a kosher Chinese place; Zabiha, a halal meat market next-door to Hashalom, a Moroccan Jewish restaurant. There's the Devon Market, offering Turkish, Balkan and Bulgarian specialties; pickled Bosnian cabbages; wines from Hungary, Georgia and Germany; and fresh figs, green almonds, pomegranates, persimmons and cactus paddles. And finally, Patel Brothers—flagship of a nationwide chain of 41 Indian groceries, including branches in Mississippi, Utah and Oregon—with 20 varieties of rice, a fresh chutney bar and hundreds of cubbyholes filled with every spice known to humanity. Patel Brothers was the first Indian store on Devon, in 1974, and co-founder Tulsi Patel still patrols the aisles. "He's a very accessible guy, and both he and his brother Mafat have been very active philanthropically," said Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Food Culture in India, who lives nearby.

Colleen and her husband, Ashish, a retired professor and government official, accompanied me to Bhabi's Kitchen, a terrific place just off Devon. "This one has some dishes that you don't find at other Indian restaurants," said Colleen.

"I'm originally from Hyderabad, in the southern part of India," said Bhabi's owner, Qudratullah Syed. "Both northern Indian cuisine and my hometown are represented in here." He's especially proud of his traditional Indian breads—the menu lists 20 varieties made with six different flours. "The sorghum and millet are totally free of gluten, no starch. You might not find these breads, even in India," he said.

Months later, I'm still craving his pistachio naan, made with dried fruits and a dusting of confectioners' sugar.


Let's talk about politics and food. Specifically, what are President Obama's favorite Chicago haunts? I had occasion to ask him about this a few years ago, and the first name that popped out was a fine Mexican restaurant, now shuttered, called Chilpancingo. He has also been seen at Rick Bayless' Topolobampo and at Spiaggia, where he celebrates romantic milestones with Michelle. The Obamas are loyal, as well, to the thin-crusted pies at Italian Fiesta Pizzeria in Hyde Park. And the president was a regular at the Valois Cafeteria on 53rd Street. "On the day after the election, they offered free breakfast," said my friend Marcia Lovett, an admissions recruiter for Northern Michigan University, who lives nearby. "The line went all the way around the corner."

And how about soul food, that traditional staple of Chicago's black community? For that, Obama said his favorite was MacArthur's, on the West Side. Still, there are a number of African-American restaurants that can lay some claim to the Obama mantle. Lovett and I headed for one of the best known, Izola's, on the South Side. We were joined by Roderick Hawkins, director of communications for the Chicago Urban League.


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