Malika Ameen & Mohammad Islam's Devon favorites
Two chefs-one Pakistani, the other from Bangladesh-devour Little India's specialty groceries, sweets and handheld eats.
It’s a few minutes after 10am, and Mohammad Islam is chugging chai tea while eyeing the door of Fresh Farms Market (2626 W Devon Ave, 773-764-3557), seemingly planning a quick getaway to an adjacent snack shop. Islam and his wife, Malika Ameen, are the owners and chefs of River North’s Aigre Doux, but they aren’t shopping at their favorite Devon Avenue market with the restaurant in mind. They’re picking up Indian specialties for their three kids, a brood that’s already developed quite a palate from growing up with a Pakistani-American mother and a Bangladeshi father, both chefs.
“I have low blood sugar, I tell you,” Islam jokes. “I made Malika stop at Ghareeb Nawaz (2032 W Devon Ave, 773-761-5300) before we came here for one of their paratha rolls filled with omelette.” He found the flaky breakfast wrap on a tip from Ameen’s father, an immigrant from Pakistan. (Dad’s a big fan of Ghareeb’s chicken biryani, a seasoned rice dish, and handheld paratha wraps, especially those stuffed with slightly charred beef.) Ameen fills her cart with colorful packages of dried mango powder (labeled amchur, which adds sour punch to soups and sauces) and jet-black kalonji seeds that she uses to impart a nutty, peppery flavor when pickling.
“This is the part of the store my mom heads for first,” Ameen says, walking toward shelves in the back that groan from the weight of ultra-ripe produce. “It’s supercheap but you have to use it right away,” she explains, and grabs a pack of what look like craggy, knobby zucchini, explaining they’re karelas (bitter gourds) that are traditionally split lengthwise, salted to extract some of the bitterness, then stuffed with spiced ground beef, fried and added to a tomato-based sauce.
After paying, Ameen heads a few doors down to catch up with her husband, who’s already charming the women behind the counter at Kamdar Plaza (2646 W Devon Ave, 773-338-8100), inquiring in Urdu when the next batch of dhokla will be pulled from the oven. The couple explains that Kamdar is the best place in town for this savory, spongy, steamed cake of gram flour and yogurt native to the Gujarat area of India. “They’re the only people who make it right,” Islam claims. “That, and khandvi, another Gujarati specialty made with similar ingredients but rolled thin like a tiny crêpe and topped with cilantro, chiles and mustard seeds.”
Nearby sweet shop Tahoora (2345 W Devon Ave, 773-743-7272) is the couple’s preferred weekend brunch spot, when the counter-service snack shop/bakery offers a classic breakfast plate of halwa (semolina cooked with clarified butter), puri (puffy fried breads), chole (chickpea curry) and aloo saag (potatoes and spinach) with raita (yogurt) and achar (pickle). But since it’s a weekday, they settle on rasmalai, fluffy sweet-cheese dumplings swimming in thick, snow-white milk that both agree Tahoora does best.
They still need to grab lunch, so Ameen considers her father’s favorites nearby. “We go to Sabri Nehari (2502 W Devon Ave, 773-743-6200) for this Pakistani dish nehari, tender beef in a rich gravy. It’s very homestyle there. We get that, the moong dal, yellow lentils with curry leaves and mustard seeds,” she says. Continuing the roll call of options with her husband, she contemplates JK Kabab House (6412 N Rockwell St, 773-761-6089) for its excellent seekh, grilled kebabs of spiced ground beef, then Khan B.B.Q. (2401 W Devon Ave, 773-274-8600), preferred on Fridays when the stewlike chicken pulao is served, and Lahore Food & Grill (2114 W Devon Ave, 773-761-4919), a cabbie joint that “Dad loves for the juicy, spicy fried chicken charga.” The mere mention of fried chicken sets Islam in motion toward Lahore. Apparently a decision has been made, and father knows best.