I WALKED ALONG DEVON AVENUE ON an almost-Spring Sunday. It was the type of Chicago day that warranted gloves on one side of the street and short sleeves on the other. I squinted through the beaming sunshine at buildings and billboards, grasping for a sense of my childhood on this street, but it never came to me. It was too Western and too quiet compared to the streets of Mumbai, where loud honking, vendor calls, and smells of strong spices, stale garbage, and salty sea water is the norm.
I shifted expectations, ready to feel the vibe that only the city of Chicago can fill me with. That too never came. Devon Avenue seemed to be a street representative of everything and nothing, picked up from everywhere and nowhere, and plunked into a place that was completely unidentifiable. In this, I identified deeply—not quite Indian, not quite American. Always slightly out of place in a curious way.
When it comes to heritage and community, I’m a non-belonger. Having been raised in so many different cultures before the age of 16, I identify with a lot—the niceties of Canada, the vibrancy of India, the bold tropically Asian flavors of Singapore, the laidback and opportunity-filled side of America—but belong wholly to none. Sometimes, this comes with a sense of displacement. Every sailing ship needs an anchor. Mine is food, and Devon Avenue has plenty of that.
I started with Annapurna (2608 W. Devon, 773-764-1858), a modest café with a handful of small tables and an open kitchen buried in the back. Waiting in line to order at the counter, my eyes fell on an array of snacks on the wall. Suddenly I was six years old again, holding on to my mother’s fair fingers as we hurried past street stalls in the sweltering Mumbai heat, me begging for a packet of gathiyas or Khatta Meetha (sour and sweet) mix.
I snatched the bright packets off Annapurna’s shelves and held them to my nose, my mouth watering with memories of eating these snacks by the bowlful with a cup of homemade, freshly-squeezed watermelon juice (something Annapurna sadly doesn’t offer) and an Archie comic by my side.
Annapurna is entirely vegetarian, which would never be my go-to. In fact, as a Parsi growing up in India, our group took great pride in being able to consume copious amounts of non-veg food without religious guilt. But if you’re going to go vegetarian, there’s no better way to go than with Indian snack foods. And of the array of dishes available at Annapurna, there’s no better way to go than with their Khasta Kachori Chat.
It combines the best of both worlds—the hot and spicy texture of bhel (a savory snack made from puffed rice, onion, tomato, potato, green chutney) with the addition of a cooling yogurt that includes its own spices. If you’ve ever had Dahi Batata Puri, another must try, it’s the identical dish except instead of being served in multiple bite-sized puris, it’s just one enormous puri filled with bhel, yogurt and chutney. Drizzled with tamarind sauce and served in a massive crispy puri, I prefer to let it all get just a little bit soggy for that extra steeped flavor on my tongue.
I shoveled every bite into my mouth with gusto, my body sitting in a little café in Chicago while my soul journeyed back to days at the Willingdon Club. I vividly remembered swinging my legs on the old wicker chairs that inevitably poked some part of the body as I gleefully took bite after bite of dahi batata puri until my mother would say, “Ave bus!,” which means “Now enough!” With that big heaping puri from Annapurna, it almost seemed like this time it was enough. Almost.
That dosa and pakora combo brought me back to weekend tea times, sitting at a beautifully laid table with the AC on and ladies’ perfumes doing battle with deep fried scents from the kitchen.
I strolled several blocks westward, past shops that displayed stunning displays of colorful garments on European plastic models, past the Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza shop, past the Croatian Cultural Center, and into Anmol (2858 W. Devon, 773-508-5050)—a Pakistani/Indian cuisine restaurant.
During the 14 years I spent growing up in India, I never ate at a Pakistani restaurant. The rivalry between the two countries trickled down so deep that it was ingrained in our families without much recognition. I took my seat and glanced at the menu, curious to see just how different the worlds were. Most of the items looked the same, with a few dishes spelled or described differently here and there. I carefully chose a mix of items that I was either very familiar with or had never had, including a sizzler platter of assorted meats and fish, a whole spice-fried chicken and, of course, naan.
Sounds of sizzlers whizzing by me took me back to when I was 15 and went on a clandestine outing with a group of boys and girls that happened to include a guy I was crushing hard on. We went to Sizzlers, a popular spot in the Fountain area of Mumbai. I had never told my parents about it but I’m sure I came home smelling like charcoal and onions, with a guilty smile on my face. That sizzler was nothing compared to what I tried at Anmol. Of the assortment of meats on that sizzler, I sighed with ecstasy at the perfect char and spice crust on the tender mutton chops. In one bite those chops made it to the top of my list.
After giving the sizzler platter a fair share of attention, I turned to the Fry Charga, which is a whole chicken packed in a spice rub and then fried. No batter. No flour. No buttermilk. Just spices. I tore a chunk of leg off and rubbed my finger along the grittily-spiced exterior that smelled like sin. It tasted even better. Crispy exterior with that delicious, fried chicken taste interior. It’s clear why they serve the whole chicken; anything less would cause a riot for more.
I was on a roll, physically full but mentally ravenous for more. After a walk around the avenue to scope the various offerings, I went back westward to pop in to Uru Swati (2629 W. Devon, 773-381-1010), another vegetarian spot. This time, my memories were jolted in a different sense. Uru Swati is dingy at its best and, at that odd hour, there were only a few stragglers at tables. It reminded me of the type of café my mother had always forbade me to visit with friends when I was in high school. The one time I disobeyed her in my youth, I was repaid with violent food poisoning (I’m pretty sure it’s because I tried a water-based sauce and had nothing to do with the café itself. Never drink the water.)
The rebel in me sat down at Uru Swati and I decided to start with their Paper Sada Dosa, which is an extra thin lentil crepe. The one at Uru Swati happens to be two-feet long. I also requested a plate of Paneer Pakora, which are fried cottage cheese curds, battered in chick pea flour and served with green chutney.
When the pakoras arrived, I was disappointed to see that the chutney was served on the side as opposed to stuffed in with the solid cheese curd and encased in doughy batter like those of my childhood. Nonetheless, that dosa and pakora combo brought me back to weekend tea times with my grandparents, my mom (my dad was always working), and family friends, sitting at a beautifully laid table with the AC on and ladies’ perfumes doing battle with deep fried scents from the kitchen.
At this point you might be wondering at the iron-clad capacity of my stomach. I admit, I was pushing myself. But sometimes, when one goes down a road searching for parts of themselves, there is nothing for it but to push through until the journey is complete. In my case, this meant dinner.
With another walk, up and down the street to settle the snacks, I decided to hop in to Sabri Nihari (2502 W. Devon, 773-465-3272). This time, I was looking very specifically for my favorites—mutton biryani (a basmati rice dish made with saffron, cardamom, caraway and other spices, stuffed with marinated goat and cooked in a clay pot covered with kneaded wheat flour to enhance the cooking process) and chicken makhani (the ever-popular butter chicken). Both dishes are standard fare for my family any time we go out to eat at an Indian restaurant. In fact, consider them the no-questions-asked, must-have dishes on the table. No matter how much we’ve ordered, there must be makhani and biryani.
While the service disappointed greatly at Sabri Nihari, the makhani more than met my standards. Many Indian restaurants in the West serve a one-note makhani where cream and butter are the predominant flavors, followed by hints of tomato. Sabri Nihari’s chicken makhani stays true to the dish’s roots—a mild curry where spices are layered with great perception and care to provide an array of sensation for the palate.
Paired with the biryani, which was oddly served on a plate instead of in a bowl for ease of serving, my stomach rallied and found room it had earlier claimed as OCCUPIED for more bites.
At last, I was satiated. Well, almost at last. Every good meal must end with dessert. While gulab jamun is my favorite Indian dessert as an adult, I stayed true to the theme of the day and went with my first love—mango kulfi (a type of Indian ice cream, made with the same ingredients as regular ice cream but rather than having air introduced into the churning process, the ingredients are mixed into a paste and then frozen immediately for a creamy texture when being consumed).
Every restaurant mentioned in this piece has been reviewed or ranked in some sort of “Best Of Indian in Chicago” type list. That was not my purpose. Many restaurants can make food that tastes great but few can make dishes so authentic that the experience evokes powerful reminiscences. For those like me who have never could grow roots in just one place, it’s important to find ways to re-visit the times that make us who we are in a world where we don’t perfectly belong.
Sabrina Medora is the founder and author of Food Fiction Project on Instagram as well as the writer for Behind Chicago Food for ChicagoNow. In her spare time, Sabrina enjoys hot yoga, reading, exploring big cities, collecting Harry Potter books, and binge-watching competitive cooking shows like Top Chef and Chopped.
COVER PHOTO: Liam Gebert
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