WEST RIDGE — I come from a family where my grandmother comes up to me and asks “Are you hungry yet? Are you ready to eat?” every two hours. My mother packs me the most delicious South Indian dishes before I leave for work. She is also simultaneously thinking about the dinner I should eat after my shift.
So when my visa was stamped and it was confirmed that I was leaving India last summer, they both went into a panic, convinced they'd need to pack me a year's worth of food. I sacrificed several precious pounds of luggage space for my family’s secret spices, sweets and snacks so I won’t starve in a new country. Because, according to them, America is devoid of food.
Of course, at Chennai International Airport, security guards took one look at most of those items, rolled their eyes at me, and set them aside — my baggage was 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) overweight. I tossed most of it, arriving in Chicago with a small stash of laddus (round, sweet dish made with gram flour and sugar) and some rice mix tucked in the corners of my bags.
I finished everything they gave me in a few months, and quickly started craving more of the food from my home. So like many other other Indian transplants before me, I set out to West Devon Avenue with a huge bag and an empty stomach. And ever since, Devon has been my home away from home.
Devon attracts a large population of Asian community from the suburbs and the city, and beyond. One resident, who has lived in Devon for the last 40 years, said he often bumps into people of Asian descent from Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa who would make the trek to spend their weekends in and around Devon.
"Devon offers sumptuous and mouth-watering food," said Ankush Keskar, a regular at Devon Avenue. "It is a multicultural environment and it makes me feel like I am back in India."
Here are some of my favorite spots:
• If you are from South India looking for a quick vegetarian fix, Uru-Swati (2629 W. Devon Ave.) is your best bet. Tucked away in the corner of West Devon and North Talman avenues, this petite restaurant has everything from your medhu vada (fried savory donut made with black gram flour) to Mysore Masala Dosa (crispy, Frisbee-shaped dish made with white flour) and uthapam (thicker version of dosa). If you like hot dishes, you should definitely try their mirchi pakora — fat chilis roasted with a coating of chickpea flower.
Uru-Swati is a vegetarian restaurant in Devon Avenue. They are known for their South Indian menu. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
My personal favorite dish from there: idli-vada combo. I am also impressed with the North Indian options they have. Kudos to the chef for mastering a diverse range of North and South Indian dishes — it’s a rare feat. I also like their theme — the walls are painted to represent Mumbai’s skyline.
South Indian "idli." [Flickr/Sonia Goyal]
Tip: take as many people as you can. Order 10-12 dishes on the menu. You will each end up paying no more than $15-$20. Also, I took the train to Loyola and then a bus to Uru-Swati on a Tuesday and then realized they are closed on Tuesdays. Don’t make the same mistake that I made.
• Walk two blocks down the road and you will reach Viceroy of India (2520 W. Devon Ave.), a posh North Indian restaurant perfect for a large dinner party. Their Viceroy royal platter is a steal — featuring everything from tandoori chicken to seekh kebab (minced meat and lentils cooked in open fire). Lamb, a prominent Asian meat makes an appearance in the menu in the form of lamb biryani. I highly recommend that with their yogurt dip.
Viceroy of India's lamb biryani and meat platter are sumptuous. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
To finish the meal off, try their mango kulfi (Alfonso mango-flavored ice cream with nuts).
Tip: Take your non-Indian friends and make them try the shrimp vindaloo ... then watch as they sweat through their clothes.
Sukhadia's is a must-visit for dessert lovers. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
• Most restaurants on Devon serve desserts, but few as expertly as Sukhadia’s (2559 W. Devon Ave.). If you are anything like me, you will finish off the kulfi from Viceroy, then saunter down the street for round two.
Their jilebis (made by dipping flour batter in sugar syrup and frying it in oil), and mango milkshake will make you wish you'd skipped dinner to save more room for sweets.
Jilebis, made with flour and sugar syrup, is a hot sell in Sukhadia's, along with their mango lassi (yogurt). [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
Tip: Each plate of jilebis will have six pieces. I highly recommend you take a few back home. The sugar rush will hit you after a few minutes.
• Want to impress someone with pastries? Wow them with a trip to Mughal Bakery (6346 N. Maplewood Ave.), a Indo-Pakistani bakery four blocks from Uru-Swati: it's tucked in the corner of Maplewood and Devon avenues. The store has handcrafted cookies including butter cookies, cumin cookies and wheat cookies. My personal favorite is the cumin cookies. There is a slightly hot flavor to the cookies that's tempered with the infusion of butter.
Mughal Bakery's cumin cookies are extremely popular among Asian immigrants, owners say. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
Tip: Buy a mix-flavored cookie box if you are not sure what flavors you like.
• If you're a broke grad student like me and you can’t afford to eat out everyday, visit Patel Brothers (2610 W. Devon Ave.), the Indian grocery store, and stock up in bulk. Bollywood songs from the 1980s will hit you before you even enter the store. That, combined with the smell of spices will make you feel like you are back in India.
"People who come here feel like they have stepped into India," said Ayub Khan, an employee at Patel Brothers.
Patel Brothers is known for its spices and pickles (Indian sauce made with fruits, salt, spices and vinegar). [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
Check out their extensive selection of Indian pickles (fruits/vegetables pickled with oil, vinegar, chili powder and water). I really enjoyed their mango pickle and their lemon pickle. Paired with their wide range of ready to cook paratas (kneaded and rolled wheat flour bread), will make for a quick packed lunch for school or work.
Try their methi parata (bread rolled with spinach): There's a certain sour and spicy aftertaste that I enjoy a lot.
Tip: If you hate sticky rice (the only option available in stores outside of Devon), I would suggest you buy the non-sticky rice from Patel Brothers and BYOR.
• After the food coma and buy-everything-you-see high, you might want some quiet time. My favorite place to spend some alone time is the Gurudwara Sahib of Chicago. It is a place of worship for the Sikh.
Tip: I highly recommend tasting their prasad (a small-portion of sweets and savories offered after the evening prayer). It is delicious.
• Got an Indian wedding, or a casual party, on your social calendar? Taj Sari Palace (2553 W. Devon Ave.) is the go-to handmade clothing store.
Taj Sari Palace, one of the oldest clothing stores in Devon Ave., was launched in 1978. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
Their exquisite lehengas (long skirt and blouse) and chudidars (long top with pants and shawl) come in bright shades and work well for extravagant functions like weddings and Diwali (the festival of lights).
"We cater to every age group — there are dresses, suits and wedding attire for kids, men and women," said Mariya Rasheed, an employee at Taj Sari Palace.
Tip: I am not a big fan of neon-bright and patterned clothes. Check out their suave collection of kurtas and chudidars. They are simple and elegant.
Taj Sari Palace's wide collection of silk clothing. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
• No visit to Devon Avenue is complete without a pit stop at India Book House (2541 W. Devon Ave.). From Carnatic and Hindustani music CDs to books on Ayurveda (alternative medicine with historical roots in India), Hinduism, Vedas, art and culture, this store is a goldmine for people who want to know about India’s history.
Books on Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam can be found in India Book House. [DNAinfo/Aishwarya Kumar]
"While Devon Avenue has abundant restaurants and clothing store, India Book House is one of the few stores that offers a cultural experience," said Mahesh Sharma, the owner of India Book House.
Tip: Ask to listen to some of the Carnatic music CDs. This will help pick a CD you'll love.
I feel lucky to have landed in Chicago, where Devon Avenue transports me to a home-away-from-home. At every opportunity, I bring my new friends for a pilgrimage to the North Side strip. This way, I get to share a part of me — an important part — with the people I've met here.
And I get to eat the most amazing food. It's a win-win.
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