I've been commuting to the suburbs for three very long months and the baseball reality TV show I'm working on ends in just over a week (they lost the playoffs). I've been giddy over the thought that I'll soon be able to roam my old grazing haunts, and until today, I seriously doubted that I'd ever return to the dreary suburbs. That is, until I made my way through the buttery naan-filled lunch buffet at Spice In Cafe, a just-under-a-year-old Indian restaurant in one of the dozens of strip malls populating Hoffman Estates.
What is it about strip malls and good food? You'd think cheap rent would mean mediocre food, but that seems to never be the case. It's more like cheap rent means damn fine home cooking, especially outside the city.
Spice In Cafe was dead empty when I strolled in. That could be because the doors open at 11:30 a.m. and I blazed in promptly at 11:31 a.m. The $6.95 daily lunch buffet had just been laid out, and I was the first to dive into each and every mouthwatering dish.
Though small and compact with just 12 items, the buffet had the warm touch of an Indian grandmother who'd made a remote desert kitchen her stomping ground for decades. Soothing stone-like walls, bright flowers and soft Indian music made for a peaceful environment and the waiter seemed surprised at my exuberant excitement over each bite of food and couldn't stop smiling at my heartfelt appreciation for the made-only-for-me buffet.
Within moments of entering, my plate was loaded with fragrantly sweet rice and a slew of tear-inducing vegetarian options. I asked the waiter every time he came over what the little sauteed peppers that looked like green beans were and promptly forgot each time he told me.
photo: Misty Tosh
I shoved deep-fried onion ringlets that resembled calamari down with wild abandon and wondered how I'd never seen these treats in other buffets before. Cubes of cheese in curry sauce were torn apart, stuffed in crispy biscuit-tasting naan triangles and dunked in chickpea stew while glass after glorious glass of ice water washed everything down.
I went back for round two and almost went for the cute chicken lollipops and brilliant pink tandori chicken, but I'm still in my no-meat ways, so I settled for more soup, more bread, more rice and more everything.
Dessert was refreshing, just a couple of discs of deep-fried dough balls floating in creamy sugar syrup steeped with cardamom, rosewater and saffron. Though I've forgotten every Indian name for the delectable dishes I tried, there is one name I won't forget: Spice In Cafe.
The Final Rave: Who really cares what the food is named when the buffet is hot and everything is sheer bliss to the palate?
Keep It Going:
Drink it: El Ranchito
The super sweet hortchata and bean-heavy veggie tacos at this strip mall taco joint in Schaumburg puts most city versions to shame. I'd sometimes go back twice in one day, it was that good.
Eat it: Buena Beef
It took me weeks to try this Italian fast food place just down the road from the office. But, once I did, I was hooked. Its balsamic-drenched tuna sandwich rocks and it even serves wine. Nice.
Do it: Rosati's Pizza
We ordered this insanely delish pizza so much the restaurant's number was on speed dial. So hot, so good, so fast—always in less than an hour and hell, we were ordering for twenty.
Get crazy with it: Portillo's
This wacky three-counter joint was my mainstay while eating out in the 'burbs and I still haven't found a fast food-style chopped salad to match the one served here.