Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chowing Down in Chicago

I was in Chicago—where I lived for about 14 years—over the weekend. Every year, I go back to visit family and a few friends. And every year, I feel more and more like a tourist and a bumpkin. I find myself thinking things like, “Wow, there’s so much traffic here!” and “Look at all them tall buildings!” Chicago’s changed so drastically in the five years since I left, it almost feels like I never lived there, which is a bit unsettling.

But then again, there are a few neighborhoods that remain unattractive to developers and those are the neighborhoods I chose to spend time in on this visit. No wonder I had such a great time.

Despite record-breaking heat and humidity, I insisted on walking around the city as much as possible. A friend of mine and I took a long walk looking for a place to eat lunch and ended up at Argyle Street, a Vietnamese neighborhood near the el tracks. As soon as I saw this place, I knew I had to eat there. I love the complete lack of regard for cuteness, hipness, and glamour.

Tank Noodle

Its name made me wonder if there was just a giant self-serve communal trough of pho in the center of the restaurant. We stepped in and, though there was no trough of pho, the place did rate near zero for ambiance. Nevertheless it was packed (mainly with Asians) and we would have had to wait for a table, which on the one hand made me want to eat there (the food must be great, right?) and on the other hand made me want to leave, which is what we ended up doing.

We walked about 50 yards down the street and ate at a place called Thai Pastry and you can bet your sweet bippy I ordered a Thai pastry for dessert, simply because…who ever heard of Thai pastry? It was really more like Thai bread pudding, and even though I normally don’t go for bread pudding of any nationality, this stuff was delicious.

I love and always have loved Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. Portland has tons of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, sure, but they’re scattered all over the city. It’s just not the same as having an actual high-density Southeast Asian neighborhood you can go immerse yourself in and sort of feel like you've been transported to another country.

For dinner that night we went to a traditionally Polish but now trending toward Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The neighborhood seems to be completely immune to gentrification, save for a lone and loathsome Starbucks.

We were there to celebrate my dad’s birthday at this place.

Beer Burden

He’d seen something about it on TV and decided he wanted to trek into Chicago to go there. I think it has something to do with the fact that somewhere in our ancestry we have an ounce or two of Polish blood.

Fine with me. When I see beer given this sort of prominence on a restaurant’s sign, it automatically makes me quite well disposed to it. Do they have their priorities straight or what?

Oh my god. The place was over-the-top. Stuffed bears and elks, a working waterwheel, booths that mimicked olde European sleighs, strolling musicians dressed just like the guy on the sign, a menu chockful of leaden meat-and-potatoes dishes, patrons who spoke nothing but Polish and ordered bottle after bottle of "wodka" and sang along with the musicians, and little old ladies in long dresses swaying to the music and just waiting for some guy at the bar to get drunk enough to dance with them. I felt like I was in fake Europe. But the beer was authentic and that’s really all that matters.

So yeah, this trip was really about eating my way through some of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods.

The absolute highlight, though, was Devon Avenue, or to use its alternate name, Gandhi Marg. How I have missed Devon Avenue with its sari palaces, chaat houses, sweets shops, and pan (paan) emporiums! I’ve even missed the splotches of red pan-tinged sputum on the sidewalks (OK, not really). Portland has no vibrant Indo-Pakistani neighborhood. And to think that I once lived within a 20-minute walk from Devon Avenue and just took it for granted, heading over there probably no more than half a dozen times a year. I miss it so much!

But—yay! yay! yay!—my sister and I sauntered down Devon on Monday and found a brand-new place that serves pani puri plus tons of other great snacks. I’ve been craving pani puri for years and years and years and you can’t find it anywhere in the Portland metropolitan area (at least I don’t think so)!

Pani Puri Front and Center!

We devoured not only the pani puri, samosa chaat, and mango lassi shown here, but also an order of onion pakora and a masala dosa to the accompaniment of a couple of blaring TVs tuned to B4U (a sort of Bollywood version of MTV). Everything about it was fantastic and highly satisfying.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home