By Ryan Wenzel
For a Saturday, business at Bhabi’s Kitchen is uncharacteristically slow. Few among the crowds traversing nearby Devon Avenue for weekend shopping have stepped into the Indian-Pakistani restaurant at 6352 North Oakley; two white couples are the restaurant’s only patrons. Small chandeliers soak the thirteen-table restaurant with yellow light. The walls—painted garishly in gold, orange and turquoise—are covered with decorations usually found at rummage sales: a wooden whale, a melodramatic oil print of the Brooklyn Bridge, a cheap plastic clock that can’t keep time.
Nonetheless, Qutradullah Syed, the 51-year-old proprietor, gives his disjointed establishment an urgent, professional feel. Dressed in a gray sweater, blue jeans and a black bucket hat, he circles the restaurant’s interior like a hawk. His eyes, rendered a piercing shade of blue by contact lenses, scan the restaurant. Everything must be perfect. He jogs over to the stereo in the corner and flips through Bollywood tracks. He runs to the opposite side of the dining area to tweak the light switches, ultimately deciding to dim the chandeliers. When he has created the ideal ambience, he approaches each table—often abruptly—to inquire about the food.
“How you like my chana masala? How you like my mutter paneer?” he asks a couple sitting near the front windows, staring at their unfinished meals.
“Oh, it tastes great. I’m just really full,” the woman says, caught off guard. Her companion echoes the compliment with an awkward smile and a nod.
Their host’s mouth breaks into a big smile. “I am the king of flavors,” he says with a self-satisfied shrug, just before walking away.
Syed was born in 1955 in Hyderabad, a city in southeastern India now known for its booming technology industry. His father was a civil engineer, but it often was difficult for him to provide for his wife, six sons and five daughters—especially after his retirement. To fulfill his family’s “financial dreams,” Syed cut short his education and left India when he was 17. He moved to Saudi Arabia with a falsified passport and took a job at an international bank, trading gold and currency. He brags that he made a small fortune in the early 1980s, after the fall of the Shah of Iran caused an unprecedented spike in gold prices, but Syed says he kept little of the money for himself. He sent the bulk home to Hyderabad, allowing his siblings to avoid work and complete high school.
In 1984, Syed left Saudi Arabia and moved to Chicago, where many of his relatives had relocated. Needing a new line of work, he turned to an unlikely childhood talent: fashion design. During summer vacations in Hyderabad, he avoided the heat by visiting his uncle’s air-conditioned clothing store, where he learned how to sew and sketch intricate sari patterns. His skill proved lucrative in Chicago. Syed’s high-end clothing store, Bombay Fashion, also located on Devon Avenue, quickly became the site of late-night runway shows for Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani elite, and he frequently was commissioned to design colorful saris, gowns and other formalwear for pageants such as Miss America and Miss Illinois. But in 1994, two robberies within two weeks closed Syed’s business and ended his days of cavorting with models.
Reopening the store, Syed says, would have been too difficult, both emotionally and financially. Thirteen years later, he makes no attempt at hiding his bitterness. “The eighties for me were great. The nineties, they suck,” he says, forcing a smile. “If I wasn’t robbed, I still would be one of the best fashion designers in the world. Now it’s too late, it’s all changed.”
Syed doesn’t regret his stint in fashion, though. It introduced him to the woman who would become his wife, Qaisera Qureshi—referred to as Bhabi, or “sister-in-law,” by friends and family. Qureshi, a native of Pakistan, worked as a seamstress at a neighboring sari store. Syed married her less than a year after meeting her, making him the last member of his family to marry and the only one to find a spouse in the United States. Syed worked for the rest of the 1990s in jewelry wholesale and, in 2002, opened Bhabi’s Kitchen with Qureshi’s help.
Even though the area is peppered with Indian restaurants, Syed believes his restaurant fills a niche. He breaks the rules of Indian cooking, frequently inventing his own recipes or tweaking traditional dishes. His innovation has paid off: The restaurant is expanding into an adjacent storefront, and business is booming.
“I love our food and I don’t see anyone providing the food like I’m creating,” he says. “I’m creating new flavors. Look at the menu—I offer sixteen types of bread. You will not find another restaurant with that.”
Bhabi’s Kitchen, 6352 North Oakley, (773)764-7007.