A visit to Indiatown

March 13, 2011 • 7:41 am

Website posting will be a bit light until Thursday, as I have three visitors to entertain.  But one of the advantages of having visitors is showing off Chicago—especially its cuisine.

I’ve eaten all over the U.S., and I have to say that the two greatest American towns for eating are (in decreasing order) New Orleans and Chicago.  The ethnic diversity of this town means we have a tremendous diversity of cuisine. I can’t think of a single nationality of food that we can’t get here.  We even have a Georgian restaurant!  And while New York City probably has an equal diversity, it doesn’t have the same quality in every area.

That disparity between the Big Apple and Chitown is most evident in Indian food.  The “Indian” section of NYC is small, and the food barely okay.  In Chicago, on the other hand, we have a huge Indian area, centered on Devon Avenue on the far north side. It goes for several miles, and is full of Indian clothing and DVD stores, Indian groceries, and, of course, Indian restaurants. I believe I’ve said before that I think the three greatest cuisines of the world are French, Indian, and Chinese—especially from Hunan and Szechuan—and that’s not a ranking. In Chicago one can get Indian food equal in quality and authenticity to the stuff I’ve eaten all over India.

So when my friend and editor from Oxford University Press, Latha Menon, came to visit (she’s helping me design another book proposal), it was natural that we go to Indiatown, especially because Latha comes from Kerala, though she’s spent most of her life in the UK.  She’s also, as are many south Indians, vegetarian. But that’s not limiting, as there are many great vegetarian Indian restaurants in Chicago.  I took her to one of our best veg Indian restaurants, the Udupi Palace.

As is her wont, Latha had a paper dosa, which the equivalent of an Indian crepe. This is the paradigmatic south Indian dish, made from lentil and rice flour formed into a batter, poured into a great thin circle like a pancake, and quickly cooked on a big griddle.  It’s savory and crispy and a fantastic meal or snack.  And it’s always served with sambar, a spicy vegetable soup, and nariyal chutney, a wonderful coconut chutney. (You always eat with your hands, of course, using only the right one.)

Here’s Latha, ready to dig in.  True dosa connoisseurs eschew dosas that are filled, like the tyro’s masala dosa that contains spiced potatoes. What you want is simply the crisp crepe itself, torn into pieces and dipped into the chutney.  In between bites you sup a bit of sambar, and wash it all down with a mango lassi. (Click on all photos to enlarge.)

I love dosas too, but I love another south Indian dish—the uttapam—even more. It’s a thicker cake made with the same batter used for dosas—the pancake to the dosa’s crepe.  And it’s usually cooked with various vegetables mixed in.  I had a wonderful chili and onion uttapam:

After lunch we repaired to the local Indian sweet shop, Sukhadia, for rasmalai (Indian cheese patties soaked in sweet, cardamom-flavored cream).  Along with baklava from Turkey, this is my favorite of all desserts.  Sukhadia has a wide range of Indian sweets and snacks.  Here is their selection of barfi (the unfortunate name for delicious “fudge” made from boiled-down milk):

And chaat, or savory snacks:

After a filling Indian meal what you want is a paan, a betel leaf wrapped around various substances that you specify.  The classic paan has lime paste and betel nut inside, but after meals I prefer a meetha paan (sweet pan), which contains date paste, coconut, cardamom, fennel seeds, and a variety of sweet spices.  You chew it, swallow the juices, and spit out the remainder.  I’ve dissected a meetha pan for you here:

I love a good paan, but nearly every visitor I take to Indiatown eschews it.  It’s a wonderful digestif. Down the hatch!

Then for a wander.  Here’s a typical block of Indiatown:

I invariably make my way to Patel Brothers grocery store, which you can see above.  It’s a huge Indian food emporium, and, as usual, among the crowds inside I was the only non-Indian or non-Pakistani person.  I love to wander the aisles inhaling the different fragrances, picking up some chutneys and my favorite Mysore sandalwood soap..

I could spend hours looking at everything.  Here’s just a small part of the chutney and pickle section:

The daals (lentils):

Nice vegetables, many not familiar to us:

And all the wonderfully-labeled boxes and bags:

I can’t go back soon enough.  But my next visitor gets taken to Chinatown, where there’s an awesome Yunnanese restaurant. . .

45 thoughts on “A visit to Indiatown

  1. I’d put Mexican cooking right up there with Indian for variety! It’s much harder to find good Mexican cooking in the US, though; you have to make it yourself up here.

  2. Arabian food is among the best. I wouldn’t put it before the French one, but I may be biaised.

  3. Did you notice any nasal snuff in the store? I’ve got quite a few tins of snuff from India, they make some good stuff.

  4. For my part, there is no “best cuisine.” My love of eating is so great, that I’ll happily dive into just about any nation or region’s goodies.

    Dr. Coyne, you just made me very hungry! I’ll be sure to get down to Devon some day this week.

  5. My wife and I have always adored Indian food, although our exposure to it has been quite limited as we live in Vermont. Judging from your wonderful posts here, Dr Coyne, we have a lot of discovery to look forward to. Thanks for this!

    One of the shrewdest gifts I ever gave my wife was a cookbook, Moghul Microwave, which – believe it or not – has terrific Indian recipes developed to use the microwave to cook food in special Corning Ware pans which have heat – absorbing lower surfaces, so they actually get very hot. Very convenient way to roast the fragrant raw spices and continue a recipe to completion in a single vessel.

  6. That’s funny.

    New York is the culinary pinnacle of the US and one of the Top-5 restaurant cities in the world. And while they may be weak, in your opinion, in Indian food, the fact is its recognized as one of the worlds best, most diverse and toughest restaurant markets in the world.

    Further, unlike Chicago, New York, Paris, London, Rome, Barcelona and San Francisco, make every major culinary “top-ten restaurant cities” list. If you’re going to claim “best,” perhaps it’d be nice if you were even recognized in more than half the major “Top-10” lists…

    So, like it or not, Chicago, doesn’t always show up… In fact, it doesn’t even place in Top-10s as often as my favorite non-US city — Vancouver, Canada. (Go there and tour the restaurants for a week or two, you’ll forget all about Chicago and the repulsive ‘Chicago Dog.’)

    As for New Orleans… I have issues with NO… I used to love it, but now I think most of them sold out to tourism and celebrity chef-dom and they’ve been second-tier ever since.

    I will make an exception for Restaurant August, but after them, it seems to me at least, there’s nothing there but a bunch once-were-great places that are living on their names, like Antoine’s Restaurant, Commander’s Palace, and (of course) anything run by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.

    Which, I guess, is why NO has dropped off most of the ‘major’ Top-10 lists… Only showing up on the USA Today list.

  7. Gorgeous ! I love you for the post & I resent you for creating in me a ‘consuming’ foodie desire that can’t be met easily in the Midlands, UK (although we have 100’s of Northern Indian/Pakistan ‘Balti’ restaurants here they don’t have the range of the place you ate at)

    I’m very fond of Lebanese cuisine. It has all the ‘notes’ of Indian, but also a greater variety than most food on the South Mediterranean. Lebanese has an ‘it’ factor for me that springs from the nations French colonial background & the perfect manners of the people. They are great hosts second only to the Persians/Iranians in my experience. Lebanon is also under the grape thanks to the French I suppose.

    The Kaslik Soho, 58 Greek Street, London is a fine example

    Cowboy boots would not be out of place at Kaslik’s I’m sure 🙂

    1. BTW…

      IMO the best way to eat Lebanese is to ignore the sweets (not really in their tradition) & also ignore the ‘mains’ & just eat plenty of different starters (Mezze)

      Here is the Kaslik Mezze Menu

      I notice via Google that Chicago does well for Lebanese

  8. Also intrigued by this:

    …so when my friend and editor from Oxford University Press, Latha Menon, came to visit (she’s helping me design another book proposal)…

    As to the theme of your protean book ~ I guess it’s too soon for cat’s to get out of the bag…

  9. Latha also, for readers who might not know, is the editor who put together Richard Dawkins’s collection of essays The Devil’s Chaplain. We owe her a big debt of gratitude for that.

    Jerry’s next book is in good hands.

  10. Your posts on food are always torture. I’m a lover of good food, but my entire adopted country (Estonia) is food poor. The national cuisine is considered to be especially poor, and is consequently not really sold in any restaurants.

    With people wanting something better, all restaurants sell foreign cuisines, but the quality is so low. Half of the reason is that almost everyone who eats there doesn’t really know what the authentic cuisine is supposed to be like. The one Mexican restaurant actually sells Estonian fried food with the potatoes replaced with rice. The Chinese restaurants sell food that looks Chinese, but has none of the spice and flavor. (Few Estonians can tolerate any kind of spiciness or sharp flavors.) And if I had a euro for every time I’ve seen so-called sushi that was just plain rice with no vinegar at all, and day-old cooked fish on top… (Sushi is defined by the rice and vinegar! Arg!)

    There’s only one city in the country — the capital — where you can hope to find food that even remotely approximates how it’s supposed to be, and that’s a three hour bus ride away. Even there, it’s only passable.

    The only exception is Italian, which is usually pretty decent.


    I guess I shouldn’t post while hungry. 😉

    1. My Estonian mum-in-law would make me chop my garlic outside the kitchen, refuse to let me store it properly wrapped in the fridge, and sterilized any surface upon which I did manage to get to chop it.

  11. Chicago ahead of NYC? You can’t be serious. And New York’s indian neighborhood is small? Have you never been to Queens?

  12. I’m tentatively planning a business trip to Chicago within the next year and I will HAVE to hit you up for restaurant recommendations.

    Moseszd – I’m a lifelong Vancouverite and I’d really like to know why we made the list of great food cities. We have a TON of Asian and Indian places, but that hardly counts as diversity. Quality is all over the map, so is service and value. In my experience, the truly good places outside of Eastern and southeastern Asian disappear too quickly leaving a residual impression of diversity but no lasting tribute.

    (in a region where Asian and Indian people make up a significant percentage of the population – a majority in my suburb – is it really accurate to say a surfeit of Indian and Chinese restaurants is diverse?)

  13. As someone who grew up in Jackson Heights, NY, I feel the need to defend my city’s culinary reputation. I am sure you were disappointed with Curry Hill (the area in Manhattan where you undoubtedly thought you were in Little India in NYC), but you were in fact in a tourist trap. If you want the good stuff (complete with the grocery stores, music, movies, jewelry, saris, etc.), the place where people come from all over the tri-state area for their fix, then head to Jackson Heights in Queens. The E, F, G, R, V, and 7 trains all stop at 74th and Roosevelt (three stops out of midtown Manhattan). You won’t be disappointed.
    As an aside, you can also get amazing Columbian food in this neighborhood. And if you like Chinese food, skip Chinatown in Manhattan. Some of the best in city can be found in Flushing (along with all sorts of other asian cuisines).
    Don’t be afraid of the outer-boroughs, there is a lot of NY you have yet to discover!

    1. I must admit that I haven’t sampled much outside Manhattan, though I thought that the best Chinese restaurants in NYC were in that borough. I freely admit that I might be wrong about both Chinese and Indian in NYC, since my sampling is based on Manhattan. But those who tout the better food in NYC might provide me with some names of Indian restaurants better than those in Chicago (I have the map of Chinese places in Flushing). I accept the challenge!

      But I’m not sure about the ethnic culinary diversity of NYC vs. Chicago, which is what my judgment was based on. Chicago has tons of terrific Mexican restaurants, for example, including three fantastic birrerias (goat restaurants, like this one) and restaurants from every state of Mexico, including Rick Bayless’s three places. I’m not sure whether NYC can match that. We also have tons of great Polish restaurants, since Chicago has by far the largest Polish population of any city outside of Poland. Does NYC have that? Great soul food here, too, and I suspect a greater variety of places than in NYC.

      But I’m open minded about this, ready to engage in the requisite field work. There can be no losers!

  14. I can understand the Indian, Thai, Chinese kitchens, but I can’t say that I love them for ever.

    Luckily for me my taste goes towards all the *eat well – live healthy and long* kitchens: italian, greek, lebanese et cetera, and japanese.

    Probably because those have the variety and at the same time upholding of simple ingredients that I can live … um, long, with.

    [Okay, I’m probably selling out actual chinese and thai here, for variety say. I guess I’ll just have to sample more. Yum!]

    1. I am not sure, but if you implication was that Indian food is “unhealthy”, then you have probably only looked at the more fatty dishes from the North(which, paradoxically, appear to be more popular in the West). South Indian cuisine which Jerry is talking about here, is altogether different. Most of the northern dishes too come nowhere close to the non-healthiness of some of the most most popular Mughlai ones.

  15. Patel Brothers at
    2610 West Devon Avenue

    Didn’t that used to be “The Bagel” Jewish
    restaurant? Just shows how the neighborhood has transitioned from Jewish to folks from the Indian Subcontinent. I remember when I
    used to go to Devon for Standard of India and Gaylords was about the only other Indian place I knew in Chicago.

    BTW, here in Silicon Valley, we have wonderful Indian supermarkets where you can find anything available in India.

    We also have “Real Ice Cream” with kulfi, an
    eggless ice cream made with sweetened condensed milk and flavors like Almond Saffron Pista (Pistachio), Mango, rose water, Saffron/Cardamom, etc.

  16. You know, I live in a banana republic and I never eated the banana flower. We pack foods in banana leaves, we cook the green bananas with beans, we mash and deep fry plantains… but banana flowers!?
    I need to fetch a banana flower now, a cooking experiment is necesary.

  17. Dr. Coyne,

    So, what is your favorite non-veg Indian restaurant in Chicago? I’ve lived in the Chicago area for almost two years and still haven’t had any good Indian (cursed suburbs).

    However, if Udupi Palace has better palak paneer, I might have to try it first.

    1. I don’t have one favorite non-veg restaurant: I’m partial to the Indian Garden, the buffet at Viceroy of India, and of course Khan’s BBQ on Devon for bread and MEAT (chicken boti).

    2. I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think your chances of finding good Palak Paneer at a restaurant called “Udupi” Palace are quite slim. Udupi is a small town in South India which pawned its own distinctive cuisine, which includes such delicacies as Dosas and Idlis etc. But Palak Paneer belongs to the completely different North Indian cuisine. Indeed, I haven’t seen much Paneer being used in South Indian dishes at all, except in “fusion” ones such as Paneer stuffed dosas.

  18. Great post!

    Unfortunately I didn’t know much about Indian food when I lived near Chicago. I was reallly missing out.

    Since then I’ve had two assignments in India, and I love the food.

  19. Oh man, that is cruel! I am SOOOOO hungry now!

    I know one area I’m going for sure when we finally make it to Chicago!

  20. Much as it galls me, I’ve got to put in a plug for Houston as one of the premier cities in the U.S. in terms of restaurants — although the place admittedly has few other saving graces. Not only is there every ethnic cuisine on the planet here, but half of New Orleans relocated here permanently after Katrina.

  21. I love a good paan, but nearly every visitor I take to Indiatown eschews it.

    I think one reason for this is that in India, most people who regularly eat paan put tobacco in it, and thus there is this social stigma attached even with non-tobacco paan.

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