There are a gazillion places in Chicago that I fly by while thinking, "Man…I gotta eat there." Yet something always comes up and I simply don't. Last week, after a major decision to move to warmer climes next summer, I decided that the only food I would allow myself to eat has to be from restaurants I've never been to. That means no more La Unica; goodbye Gruppo Di Amici; see ya later mojitos at Morseland. Yeah right—we'll see how long that brave declaration lasts, but, in the meantime, I did stumble in to a place I've been wanting to try for eons—a little Indo/Pak diddy called Ghareeb Nawaz (the name means "sustainer of the poor") just on the fringe of the Devon Avenue Mecca.
Now, this is a joint that is forever teeming with business, and the meters surrounding it are swarmed by cabs of every color. The chaotic storefront has a sign that reads "best homemade Pakistani and Indian food," and after sampling a slew of vegetarian dishes for $5, I can tell you it is definitely the cheapest and most generous homemade Indo/Pak food. The best? That's a toughie. But, the most affordable? You bet!
I'd waltzed in the front door and immediately became a little flustered because I could see the madness shaking down at the front counter: orders being hollered out, food coming out piecemeal, and general confusion all the way around. Magically, after taking a deep breath, I found myself situated at the front of the line with a pair of gorgeous blue eyes staring me down and telling me I was pretty. Aaaghhhh! What to do in such a circumstance? I hadn't had enough time to absorb the pictures on the wall let alone accept a compliment, so I just spit out, "Veggie briyani, veggie samosa and veggie paratha, please." After eyeballing me for a good spell, the smiling cashier asked me out on a date. While the whole line was observing, mind you. After I explained to him that my non-existent boyfriend might not like that idea, he just shrugged and said, "Why not let me take you to a nice dinner and then we can have some drinks?" Persistent that one. I just guffawed, as I always do in awkward situations, and since I'm not one to succumb to advances, I giggled, sauntered off and tried to adjust my pajama bottoms into a respectable swath of fabric. Hell, who knew it would take a young counter boy in a fast-food Pakistani restaurant to make me question my logic in leaving the house looking like a bag lady. Oh well, he thought I was pretty, and that's all that mattered.
As I sat gazing at my neighbor's $3 lamb meal, I picked at my crispy potato-filled samosa. Well, I actually devoured one of them and fiddled with a second, since my aggressive lover boy had given me an extra one on the house. A few minutes later, I shimmied up to the counter to pick up my tray full of food and was delighted to see steam rising off the fluffy veggie briyani.
Since my return from Indonesia, I've been on a rice kick; this gigantic pile, flanked by circles of raw onion and a little section of yogurt sauce, was exactly what I'd been dreaming about. I immediately set to doctoring up my rice with the tangy yogurt, some veggies from the paratha and little bits of chopped onion. I was just about to tuck my right hand into my beatific concoction when I realized that I had utensils! I'd become so used to chowing with my right hand over in Indo that as soon as I laid eyes on any form of rice, I fell right back into the ancient tradition. So as I swallowed my enthusiasm, I gently picked up my fork and scooped up a delicious bite of the sturdiest Indo/Pak food I've tasted in Chicago. Was it the best? Nah—but it did make my belly full, my ego fuller and, best of all, it made my heart soar when I witnessed a man across from me eating with his right hand. Bless him. And, of course, you already know this, but I will be back!
The final rave: Don't let the bare-bones aura of the dining room fool ya; the cooks in back have had some experience in the holy land.
Keep it going:
Do it: Rasoi
I'll bet you a million dollars that although it's not an accredited cooking school, this authentic Indian cooking class will not mind one bit if you eat with your hand.
Eat it: Marigold
It's definitely not a place where you'd use your hand to scoop up rice, but it does have some killer desserts.
Read it: Indian Home Cooking
It could take a lifetime to master the art of real home-style Indian cuisine, but this comprehensive book will make the path so much more fun.
Get crazy with it: Indian Invasion Comedy
This is a two-hour DVD chock-full of bits from five of the funniest Indian stand-up comedians plying their trade today. Why go out to some overrated New Year's party when you can stay home, scoop up rice with your hand, and laugh till you cry?