Every now and again, I get an email fired off to me by a serious food lover who claims to have a line on a spot I have yet to discover. Sometimes they're right on and I discover a mind-blowing gem, and sometimes they're way off, and I'm led to a place I've already hit and dismissed...old news, baby.
This time, though, I had a winner: An email came down the transom last week from a passionate fella, a devout foodie and world traveler named Rich Cohen. He preached about having deep insider knowledge to the Chicago underground food scene and wanted to show me a few hidden places that serve delicious food (and that wouldn't even pop up in a google search).
He hit me at a rare moment of weakness, one where I was convinced there was nowhere else to discover, so I said, "Where and what time?" Next thing I know, I was knee-deep in a roomful of wild-eyed Pakistani men (oh, was I supposed to sit in the female-only dining room?), all gazing curiously (ahem, balls-out staring) at my eating buddy, Chezne, and me, as we waited on a stranger who I only knew via the Internet to come and show me his goods.
When my host finally did arrive at his choice of restaurant, Shan Food Restaurant, he was totally normal, sweet and, simply, a hyper-nut about food. Much like me. Pouncing on the paper menu right away, he began firing off orders like a madman to the delighted waiter. He knew all the dishes and was devastated when the Frontier Chicken wasn't available, as he was certain that I would be blown away by it (yeah, I don't eat meat). In the end, we had a string of piping hot dishes rolling out the table rapid-fire, each better and spicier than the next. And, after getting a good look at the chicken curry, I guess I did eat the meat. Lots of it.
We started with a few crispy/soft rounds of naan (which were great, but my God, with a bit of butter and honey, wow!) and an order of palak aloo, a fantastically wet and rich spinach and potato concoction that is like straight fire applied to the taste buds. We easily drained a pitcher of water on that dish alone, and crazily enough I was already full. It wasn't going to be that easy though; we were in for a feast.
Next, I loaded my plate with dal, a vibrantly thick yellow split pea stew that was one of the best I've had; chicken curry, with brilliant ruby red chunks of pull-apart white meat chicken (bone included for your eating pleasure) smothered in an oily curry sauce (my nose still hasn't stopped running from this one); and vegetable pallao, a simple starchy rice dish with tiny bits of fresh vegetables. Once on my plate, all of the various dishes soaked into each other's juices; it was a little like diving into the belly of Pakistan all at once...without a safety net, mind you.
Glancing at my surroundings, I just smiled inside thinking, "Here I am in the back of a brightly lit convenience store, in a strip mall no less, where women are buying tampons and I'm having the best and possibly cheapest Pakistani food in the city...all due to an excited fan that I trusted wasn't going to kill me. How does it get better than this?"
The Final Rave: The vegetable samosas (a mere 75 cents each) are fried to perfection and packed with just the right amount of vegetables and spice. It's easy to pack in a half-dozen.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Mango Lassi recipe
Oh how I love blogs, especially ones that contain recipes for Mango Lassi. And even more especially when they recommend tossing in a bit of rum to the mix. Right on.
Eat it: Khan BBQ Restaurant
It calls its Frontier Chicken (a famous dish all across Pakistan) some of the best in the city, so you'll just have to try it here and at Shan (remember, go early) and be your own self-made judge.
Drink it: Zaiqa
Not only do cab drivers claim it's the best Pak food in the city (try the lamb curry), it's open 24 hours and eating with your hands is downright encouraged. You can't tell me the cabbies ain't swillin' from the ole flask-a-roo.
Get crazy with it: Devon Avenue
Just traipse up and down this Indo/Pak jewel of a street and you're bound to find loads of rich meat dishes, vegetarian delights and bakery after bakery full of sweets. Plan to spend the day.