"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Monday, February 11, 2013

Little India/Devon Avenue

The Breakdown
How educated are the residents of Little India?
Let's just say even the cell phones have PhDs.
An overview: Like Greektown, Little India represents a cultural stretch of road (Devon Avenue), within a neighborhood (West Rogers Park), within a community area (West Ridge).  West Ridge itself is a hidden gem of an area.  Besides hosting a large subcontinent population, West Ridge is also home to East Asians, Eastern Europeans, and one of the country’s largest Hasidic Jew demographics.  With so much ethnic flavor to offer, we felt for the sake of one entry that we’d keep our focus on Little India this time.

Devon Avenue, starting at California and heading eastward, is an electric blend of Chicago architecture and south Asian flare.  It’s a nonstop barrage of Indian/Pakistani shops, services, restaurants, and grocers.  Despite being a destination for south Asian culture, Little India isn’t just for Indians and Pakistanis.  Anywhere you go, whether sitting down at a restaurant, or just walking the streets, all the ethnicities of Chicago are represented.  Demographically speaking the area around Little India is one of the City’s most diverse areas.

To just call the area Devon Avenue would be a misnomer considering the wealth of other culture along this stretch of northern Chicago roadway.  Also, to just call it Little India would be another misnomer as there is a substantial representation of Pakistani culture along Devon as well.  However, without an official name for the area around Devon and Western Avenue, we will default to its common nickname of “Little India” for reference.


The boundaries: Devon Avenue covers a long area and Little India isn’t exactly defined.  But if you’re looking for an Indian/Pakistani experience, you’re best to find it directly on Devon Avenue within the following borders: Arthur Avenue to the north, Granville Avenue to the south, California Avenue to the west, and Ridge Avenue to the east.

Sturdy single-family homes are more common than the
dense residences of the lakefront neighborhoods
Population make-up: It may be known as “Little India”, but this section of Devon is as diverse as Chicago neighborhoods come.  The 2010 Census racial make-up was 29.3% white, 28.6% Asian, 24.7% Hispanic, and 13.8% black.  As Little India isn’t a formally recognized community area, the data was pieced together from the area surrounding Devon Avenue, as closely reflecting the boundaries shown above as possible.

The neighborhood has lost some residents since 2000.  The 2010 Census saw an 8.8% decline in population, falling from nearly 29,400 in 2000 to just over 27,000 in 2010.

A brief history: West Ridge began as another rural area, eventually growing due its proximity to Chicago, finally being annexed into the City in 1893.  The area really began to grow during a post-World War I housing boom, but was occupied mostly by lower density housing due to limited access to public transportation.  After 1960, the demographic profile went through dramatic change, with Jews, Eastern Europeans, and Asians settling in the area.

A slice of New Delhi, right in your backyard.
The first Indian and Pakistani populations began coming into the area in 1965.  In 2000, over 125,000 people of Indian descent called Chicago home, many of whom lived on or around Devon Avenue, and making up America’s third largest Indian population.  As a Chicagoan, you don’t have to visit Kolkata, Mumbai, or Karachi to experience subcontinent culture.  A drive or bus up to Devon Avenue will access you to spices, trinkets, Bollywood films, saris, tikka masala, chicken boti, and just a wealth of culture in one place that we usually only see smatterings of elsewhere in the City and the suburbs.

Getting there: This is one of those unfortunate situations where taking the L or Metra aren’t the best options unless absolutely necessary.  You could take the Red Line to Granville or Loyola, but then you’re looking at about another 2 miles or so west. 

So, complementing your train ride with bus, or just taking the bus straight-up is probably the best way to go via public transit.  Obviously your best bet east-west is going to be the Devon bus (155).  Going north-south, your best bus options are: California (93) and Western (49B).


Viceroy of India (2520 W. Devon Avenue)
Mumbai Vice
Little India boasts dozens of dining options.  Whether on the cheap or opening up the wallet, there’s something on Devon Avenue for every price point.  Viceroy of India occupies the first floor of a curiously sterile-looking art deco edifice.  The space feels larger than it probably really is, but there’s definitely a spit and polish in its cleanliness and presentation.  And in classic Indian restaurant fashion, the list of entrees is seemingly endless.  While it’d take you months to eat at every spot in Little India, Viceroy of India isn’t one to be missed.

Laura’s Take: We went to Viceroy of Indian on a cold Friday night to close out the week. The place definitely delivered on food, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want any sort of romantic, close atmosphere. The setup is just functional, with older booths lining the tall walls and lots of empty space in the middle of the room. The service and decor is a bit old-world, too. But, they will take care of you, for sure. Full service bar and willingness to answer any questions. Come hungry and prepare to leave incredibly full; the sauces are very rich.

Viceroy of India takes parties of all sizes

Michael’s Take: Indian food is one of my great guilty pleasures.  Rich, saucy, spicy, buttery awesomeness.  Viceroy does it right.  Chicken Xacuti was a new dish to me, but it didn’t disappoint.  It has a little bit of heat, but a lot of flavor.  We complemented our dishes with “the bread basket” which, with about eight different kinds of naan and roti seemed like a “too much of a good thing” mistake at the time, actually ended up being a masterful decision when we realized leftovers were in our near future.  The spacious restaurant was relatively quiet on the Friday night we went, but the service was attentive without being pushy, and very helpful when asked.  With plenty of options on Devon, Viceroy is a good bet.

Anything Else We Missed: The restaurant also features a banquet hall for your larger crowd.  Also, can’t make it out to the city?  The suburbs feature a Lombard location as well.  Also, if you can’t make it to either location, Viceroy offers catering to your home or business.

Ohhhhh, thick rich sauces and crisp buttery naan

Patel Brothers Grocery Store (2610 W. Devon Avenue)
We walked in to pick up a couple things...and left $56 later
Patel Brothers isn’t unique to Chicago, but for the unacquainted, it’s quite the spectacle.  It’s definitely not the size of a Jewel or Dominick’s, but the shelves of Indian and Pakistani prepared foods and ingredients looks like it goes on forever.  You literally want to sample everything (sorry, no free samples).  You can get standard fresh produce too, although the selection of that is fairly limited.  No, you come to Patel Brothers because even though you can’t find an authentic public bazaar nearby, you can still spend hours looking at spice after grain after lentil and think to yourself…dare I?  Yes, yes I must.

Laura’s Take: Do not come here for produce, but DO come for prepared meals and frozen appetizers. The walls are lined with endless freezers containing Indian delights of all kinds. Anything in bulk that you could imagine that comes from India, including teas and coffees, will be here. I think my favorite thing I stumbled on and picked up was a cardamom milk tea - just add hot water! I may be weird but it really gives me a charge to peruse the aisles of ethnic grocery stores.

Oh, I almost forgot to
mention the chutneys
Michael’s Take: If you love Indian food, this place is paradise.  For those who’ve never had Indian, save for some bananas, this place might as well be Oz.  Lines of shelves offer spices, legumes, and sauces of which I’ve never heard.  It’s actually entrancing.  We stopped in for a couple things before a later dinner reservation.  We stayed for 30 minutes and bought nearly $60 worth of fresh food and frozen meals.  Even if your familiarity with subcontinent cuisine is limited, almost as a spectacle, it’s worth stopping in to Patel Brothers.  Besides, who knows, a quick stop might turn into a trunk full of frozen samosas, Indian desserts, and jars of garam masala.

Anything Else We Missed: Patel Brothers actually has multiple locations across the country.  However, like with Viceroy of India, you don’t necessarily need to get yourself out to Devon Avenue.  There are locations in Schaumburg and Hanover Park too.  Also, if Patel Brothers doesn’t have what you’re looking for, try World Fresh Market (2434 W. Devon Avenue).  They have more variety with a slightly less emphasis on Indian/Pakistani food (but they have that too, of course).

Shelves and shelves and shelves of flavor














Khan BBQ (2401 W. Devon Avenue)
Khaaaaaaaaaan!!!
Going back to the misnomer, Little India isn’t just about Indian cuisine and culture.  Pakistanis are just as proud of their culture and their food.  So let’s try one of the Pakistani hotspots on Devon.  So what exactly is the difference?  Well, without having expertise on the issue, Indian and Pakistani cuisine is similar with a noticeable difference.  Indian cuisine is known for its thick, rich, savory sauces.  Pakistani cuisine relies more on rubs or marinades.  The meat comes out juicy on its own, with more reliance on the flavor of the meat and less on the sauce.  If you ask us, both are great in their own way.  So instead of worrying about it, try both.  There isn’t a loser between the two.

Laura’s Take: Khan BBQ is the best food I’ve had in the Devon area-YUM. I cannot wait to go back at first chance. We chatted with some suburbanites who were in for the fare as well, and we both agreed that what they do is incredible. Pakistani cuisine is meat-centric, so you have plenty of options there. Well, actually, mostly just chicken, goat, and beef. But really that’s all you need, because the preparations that they do, they do REALLY, really well. I had goat (mutton) biryani, which was recommended to me by the waiter. [Every time we’d order something, he’d say “well, today we have XYZ” as his subtle way of ‘correcting’ our orders to something he thought was good. I think this was the way to go.] Biryani is a mixed rice dish, and the one here had definite spice and so much deep flavor. I don’t know what they put in it. By the time we got done with everything (family style is easy to do here) including my mango lassi, I was completely full but not in a really laden heavy way. The food was absolutely delicious without being overly greasy, fatty, or salty. Again do not come expecting the greatest atmosphere. It’s a joint where locals who know come in for the food - at all hours of the day. You are likely to see a lot of cab drivers stopping off when you come.

Spacious dining room #2
Michael’s Take: Aw yeah, great little curveball on Devon.  Khan is a sit-down, but it’s still relatively inexpensive.  A substantial entrĂ©e will run you about $9-$12.  I went with Chicken Boti, per suggestion of the waiter.  Someone please verify the authenticity of this selection with me.  It was delicious.  Chucks of boneless chicken are marinated in a yogurt sauce overnight, so the meat is tender and juicy.  It’s also got some “charrage” going on, and a slight spiciness.  Now, here’s what you do.  Do NOT tell anyone our little secret.  You get some bread with your chicken boti.  I went with roti, which is a thinner flatbread, but you could go with naan too.  Here’s what you do: you break off a piece of that roti.  Then you cut up the chicken and put it on the bread.  You top it with the mint yogurt sauce they give you, and then the “BBQ sauce” (I use that term loosely in the context we’re familiar with.  It’s relatively sweet and thinner than American BBQ sauce).  Now, you throw on a little onion and lettuce.  And you’re now ready to play the game.  I was beyond full, but my plate was spotless by the end.  Khan is a low-frill winner on Devon Avenue.

Anything Else We Missed: OK, so someone just convinced you to go to Khan BBQ.  You have no idea what to expect.  Then you get the menu, and terror grasps you.  You begin to sweat.  None of the items have descriptions.  First of all, shhhh, do NOT be scared.  We’re gonna get through this together.  The wait staff is here for you too.  It is critically important to note that we Americans often do not like tiny bones in our food.  As delicious as the goat is, you will get bones in every other bite.  You can play it safe and get seekh kabob (it’s shish kabob), or notify the waiter of your dislike of boney material in your food and he/she will make sure you get something solid.  The worst thing you could do in the aforementioned situ is just say, “no thanks, I think we’re gonna stay in and get pizza.”

Roti bread, chicken boti, and biryani (which does not rhyme with "oti")

Devon Avenue/Little India: The Final Tally
There's more to Little India than just food too!
It’s no secret that there has been contention along the India/Pakistan border for decades.  Both nuclear powers are carefully watched around the world for any devastating tipping point.  If you came out to Devon Avenue without any prior knowledge of the historical conflict, you would be oblivious to the tension.  The whole West Ridge community area, and especially the “Little India” neighborhood, experiences little violent crime.  The partnership between these cultures has made this stretch of Devon one of Chicago’s great assets: an authentic-as-possible ethnic neighborhood that’s not only a service to the local residents, but a destination for those who aren’t.

Although we try to promote the use of public transportation in one of the best cities in the country for it, we realize that this isn’t always the best option.  Parking on Devon is metered, but if you park a block north/south of it, you’ll have little trouble finding street parking.  Go to Little India if you love south Asian cuisine.  If not, go because you’re curious.  Like Chicago’s other great ethnic neighborhoods (the list is too long to start naming them here), Little India achieves its mission.  It takes the diversity of our City’s residents, and transports them to a different place.  It gives us new experiences and introduces us to new people.  You cannot get experiences to the extent of Devon Avenue in virtually any other city on the planet, outside of the subcontinent.  It’s these experiences that made us start this blog, and it’s the inspiration that keeps us looking for our next great Chicago neighborhood experience.

Here are the loosely defined boundaries of Little India, and here's where we went

Toldja they had lots of stuff at Patel Brothers
Fashion is definitely smashin' on Devon

Little India (orange) can be a bit of a hike from the Loop (blue).
One of the few times we suggest the car as a serious option.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing. Have you ever tried bbq delivery in Chicago, IL? They can bring you a taste of BBQ all year round. They have a great selection of grilled deliciousness available.

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  2. There is a reason why Red Apple Buffet is considered one of the best Chicago restaurants around, and it’s because you get so much quality and so much value from one restaurant, something that is no doubt difficult to find these days.

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  3. It's a spectacular (and kool) neighborhood with great restaurants (we LOVE Tiffin), but if you're taking mass transit, expect travel time to take much longer than you expect!
    Today (Sunday) my wife and I waited at Foster and Western for the 49B, the ONLY bus to go to Devon and Western.
    We waited 25 minutes for a late bus with the regularly-scheduled bus only five minutes behind it, so we let the late bus (which was crowded) pass, expecting the regularly-scheduled bus five minutes later.
    The five minutes later became, according to our iPhone transit app "25 minutes", then was "delayed" (meaning at least a half hour).
    Discouraged, we went home.
    So, thanks to the CTA, Devon businesses lost at least $150 worth of brunch and grocery shopping business today.

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  4. Nice blog i like it food is really very delicious.

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  5. This blog having many qualities like people can get ideas of wedding clothes , Banquets and catering services really like it.

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  6. Visit to Devon avenue is incomplete without visiting Tahora. Its a Pakistani bakery with snacks and deleicious sweets.

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  7. One thing that I really like from little India city is its cuisine. They have great foods such as Curry. It is so delicious.

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  8. Hi, I'm writing a blog post about my neighborhood, which is Little India and am sharing a link to this wonderful blog post. Thanks!

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