A Midwestern Breathe of the Exotic
Chicago, Illinois, USA
I walk into the simply arranged restaurant and order tea, dal, and curry with nan. Multi-generational families surround me–grandmothers and some mothers swathed in silky, brilliant fabric, their children in Western-style clothing. Warmth radiates inside the restaurant as I gaze outside at the garish fluorescent lights beckoning me to buy saris, Bollywood DVDs, and fresh mangos. I believe myself to be elsewhere, perhaps in India itself, until I glance at the sidewalk and see the snow and the steam rising from the sewer caps and remember that I’m still in Chicago, on Devon Avenue: a small Midwestern slice of India.
Devon Avenue has always been a street of immigrants, although the faces have changed throughout the years. While my mom was growing up on Chicago’s North Shore, Devon Avenue was the place to go for kosher food, clothes, and Jewish ritual items. While Jewish culture has remained strong further east on Devon, the immigrants have changed west of California Avenue (an area that extends a few blocks west of Western Avenue). This area of Devon Avenue is known throughout the country as one of the top shopping destinations for Indians and Pakistanis, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article.
Indians and Pakistanis flock to Devon Avenue from throughout the midwest to buy saris and kameezs, exotic fruits and vegetables, rice, lentils, jewelry, Halal meat, phone cards and electronics. They fill the restaurants offering regional Indian and Pakistani specialties as well as inexpensive, all-you-can-eat buffets during lunch.
When all is cold and dreary or I’m just tired of the atmosphere and food in my neighborhood, my friends and I hop in the car and take a 20-minute drive down Western to Devon. Parking is iffy in this neighborhood, but with patience and side street trolling I typically find a free spot. Evenings are usually busier than daytime hours on the street.
Beyond the Arabic lettering and Indian/Pakistani names, Devon Avenue does not appear to be different from any other Chicago neighborhood: the graystone and brick architecture is similar, the side streets tree-lined, and the traffic heavy,
If we have dining aspirations on a cold winter evening, we usually hit up the grocery store first. I prefer Patel Brothers. The store has an entire aisle full of spices, another of rice, and other Indo-Pak delights. Especially tempting are the barrels of spicy snacks. I pause in the freezer aisle, trying to imagine what some of the more exotic sounding frozen vegetables actually taste like and how good mango or lychee ice cream sounds. It is essential for me to stand my ground while daydreaming, since the families shop en masse on Devon. After getting a few shoves and dirty looks, I leisurely stroll to the check-out line, where I enjoy observing how many bags of lentils and basmati rice a family buys during their Devon Avenue foray. I contemplate adding a Cadbury Dairy bar to my basket, or maybe some Smarties (I prefer them to M & Ms).
After leaving the grocery store, I survey our plentiful dining options. We occasionally frequent Arya Bhavan, 2508 W. Devon Avenue, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant. Most of the restaurants on Devon are reasonable, and you can expect to pay no more than $10 for an entrée (typically less). Arya Bhavan’s menu features a wide variety of vegetarian specialties, including several types of nan (bread), dhosa (filled crepes), uttappam (topped pancakes), and vada (fried lentil dumpling. The spice is just right here, for those seeking heat, and can be adjusted accordingly for other palates.
On my most recent visit, I stopped in at the Sher-A-Punjab Restaurant. This restaurant, like most in this neighborhood, is simply decorated, without any sort of wall hangings, photographs, or paintings. The tables are covered in white tablecloths. The food is flavorful and fresh. The weekend buffet is chock-full of tandoori chicken, chicken biryani, lamb curry, fresh nan, and many other Indian favorites. On a recent Saturday afternoon the restaurant was full of Indian families and visitors from other neighborhoods around Chicago, university students, and tourists. The waiters eagerly refill water glasses and whisk away the finished plates.
Leaving the restaurant with a full belly, a window-shopping stroll seems necessary. There are more than 10 sari shops within a 3-block area. The windows are filled with dramatic ceremonial scenes and mannequins draped in exquisite, embroidered silk tunics and saris. The sari stores beckon me in to ogle at the finery. As I continue down the street, I note the often-humorous names of stores, including “Lovely Jewelry” and HFC (Halal Fried Chicken).
After a refreshing walk, I head to my car, ready to face ordinary midwestern urban life. I know that whenever I get a traveler’s itch or spring fever, I can always visit Devon Avenue, “Little India”.