By Anupy Singla
My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s. I was three years old.
As we began our new life in America, the items we missed most were cooking ingredients: staples like turmeric powder, cumin seeds and basmati rice. We often relied on visits to India to fulfill our needs, packing our suitcases to the brim with bright yellow and red packets of fragrant spices and legumes.
These days, it’s much easier to find these ingredients and then some, with bustling corridors in most major cities dedicated to not only Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian ingredients, but also snacks and prepared foods and, of course, restaurants. Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park is such a corridor. Visit on a weekend and you’ll have a good sense of what traveling to India is like—bustling, jostling, noisy and plain fun.
I head there at least once every two weeks for fresh groceries, dinner and weekend brunch when I’m too tired to cook, and for essentials for our various prayer ceremonies and festivals.
Here are some of my favorite spots. Just be sure to avoid Devon on Tuesday, when most restaurants and shops are closed.
Fresh Farms International Market Juice Bar
No matter the day, time or reason for my visit, my first stop is the juice bar in the front corner of Fresh Farms International Market (2626 West Devon). Enter and veer to the left. Kumar, who usually handles the bar, offers what he calls, “Kumar’s Green Go Juice,” a powerhouse of greens that includes bitter melon—a wrinkled green vine-grown vegetable touted in South Asia for its ability to fight diabetes. I always have them add fresh turmeric and ginger. A large glass is $5.
After three decades in business, Kamdar Plaza (2646 West Devon) is a staple snack destination among the South Asian community in Chicago. Their top seller is a Gujarati snack called khaman dhokla, a steamed savory cake made from chickpea flour and garnished with green chiles and cilantro. Also popular is bhel puri, a savory mix of puffed rice, onion, cilantro and chutney. If you want to try a little bit of everything, go for the thali, a large stainless steel platter with small amounts of various vegetables, pickles, bread and two desserts. At $12.99 it’s a bargain, and large enough to feed two. What I love most about Kamdar is that with even one day’s notice, they will make trays for your next party, even packaging the bhel puri ingredients separately so you can mix it right before serving without it getting soggy.
Shah Jalal Grocery
Next door to Kamdar Plaza is a storefront so unassuming, most just walk by. Head inside and you’ll find a long, very narrow space dominated by large, white coolers. At Shah Jalal (2634 West Devon), they specialize in seafood from the waters off the coast of Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean. You’ll not only find unique fish like rohu, katla and mrigal, sold whole, but you can also get your standard tilapia and salmon fillets. Go on a Friday for fresh halal meat including goat, chicken and lamb.
Whenever I take my kids to Devon for a quick meal, we typically head to Annapurna (2608 West Devon), where they have something for everyone. You order up front, wait for your number to be called, and sit where you like. The vegetarian menu includes everything from snacks to South Indian specialties and even North Indian staples like dal makhani and malai kofta. What my family and I love most about this spot is how true the taste of the food is to what we actually cook at home. It’s Indian food minus the heavy cream and oil found in many other restaurants. With your meal, do as we locals do and ask for roti, the flatbread most Indians make at home. It’s delicious!
If you’re in the mood for South Asian grilled fare, then Khan B.B.Q. (2401 West Devon) is one spot you don’t want to miss. The large open kitchen is fitted with two tandoori ovens; clay fixtures with charcoal at the bottom that sear the skewered and marinated meat to perfection. You can order tandoori chicken, fish, goat and beef seekh kababs.
Sukhadia’s (2559 West Devon) is well known for its extensive offerings of sweets, especially for religious holidays including the Hindu New Year, Diwali. Look to the left when you walk in and you’ll see why my girls and I love this spot: homemade snacks. This is the place to get everything from roasted peas and lentils, spiced nuts, and our favorite, chakri, a spiced fried snack made of rice flour. Try some of these and you may never go back to snacking on potato chips.
Mysore Woodlands and Udupi Palace
When you’re in the mood for South Indian food, Mysore Woodlands (2548 West Devon) and Udupi Palace (2543 West Devon) immediately come to mind. Their dosa, a fermented crepe made of rice and lentils, is paper thin, and their idli, a steamed rice dumpling is soft and steamy. You can’t go wrong stopping in for South Indian cuisine in either spot.
Biryani is the quintessential one pot meal for South Asians and Hyderabadi Biryani is especially well known for its balance of spices. Naan (2437 West Devon) specializes in this dish. Head in any weekend and they will make this mix of rice, meat and spices in a traditional clay pot that locks in all the flavors. You can pick from chicken, lamb and vegetarian.
Patel’s Café (2600 West Devon), a snack and juice spot, makes summer weekends lively with fresh sugar cane juice, just like on the streets of India. They even bring in someone to make fresh paan, a unique combination of betel leaf, areca nut and other spices that South Asians chew often after meals. A somewhat acquired taste, it’s definitely worth the experience!
—Anupy Singla is the author of three cookbooks, including her most recent, “Indian for Everyone.” She is also the founder of Indian as Apple Pie, which specializes in spices, sauces and other Indian grocery items on shelves in and around Chicago, including Whole Foods Market. You can find out more about her and her products on her website, www.indianasapplepie.com.