Kyrgyz – Jibek Jolu – 5047 N Lincoln Ave – Lincoln Square
After two years of asking cab drivers where they’re from, it’s become somewhat of a parlor trick for me to guess where these gentleman are from by their accent and partial reflection in the rear view mirror. Folks are typically most impressed when I correctly identify a cabbie from Kyrgyzstan. I’d attribute this to the high probability that less than 10 percent of the American population is aware Kyrgyzstan is a country (including me until I met my first Kyrgyz cab driver). So, if you want to play along at home and appear to have a much greater knowledge of Central Asia than you actually do, be on the lookout for cabbies who look Chinese but sound Russian.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked and sparsely populated former Soviet state that’s about the size of South Dakota. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China. Kyrgyz cuisine, as you may have guessed, shows prominent influences from several Asian and Eastern European countries – with Jibek Jolu’s menu including everything from hand-pulled noodles and steamed dumplings to borscht and Russian-style pancakes. Thankfully, it includes no horse meat or mare’s milk, which Wikipedia tells me are also key players in the country’s culinary tradition.
We started our meal with a dish inspired by yet another country, a Korean carrot salad which is a garlic lover’s dream. It’s got a nice mild kick, and after you’re finished eating every last bite, the marinade and olive oil make an excellent dipping sauce.
Another nice aspect of Jibek Jolu’s menu is that most of the entrees can be ordered in full or half portions. As someone who frequently suffers from crushing bouts of food envy and/or buyer’s remorse, this was fantastic because it allowed me to hedge my bets with two entrees.
Lagman is a noodle dish featuring daikon, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and stewed beef in a mild, vinegar-based sauce. It sounded better in theory than execution. Nothing stood out on the plate. The peppers were mushy, the beef was bland, and the sauce never made its presence felt. The good news is that this was the one low point of the evening.
The Manty, my second entree, are steamed dumplings filled with chopped beef, onion, and pumpkin. They’re a staple of Kyrgyz cuisine, and I can see why. Jibek Jolu’s manty were tender and expertly seasoned. The yogurt and dill sauce that accompanied them provided nice balance.
My date opted for the Oromo, a surprisingly robust dish with minced potatoes, onions, cabbage, and carrots tucked into layers of thin dough. Though it sounds humble, the execution was damn near perfect.
We were too stuffed to continue, but, if there was any space left in our bellies, we would have been very tempted by Jibek Jolu’s dessert menu, which includes a tasty-looking honey cake or homemade pahlava (Central Asian baklava).
Beyond the food, diners at Jibek Jolu are also given the gift of a steady stream of Kyrgyz music videos via a TV in the corner of the dining room, and they are really a treat. There is a surprising number of middle-aged men and an abundance of girls in midriff shirts and other clothes from mid-90s America. If I got this station as a part of my Comcast package, I’d spend an unhealthy amount of time watching it. As if that wasn’t enough, the service is good, the prices are reasonable, and Lincoln Square is a nice area that most of us don’t visit enough.
If you want to step out of your typical rotation of ethnic cuisines and don’t mind spending some time on the Brown Line, Jibek Jolu should be right near the the top of your list.
In effort to get back in the swing of things here, I wanted to clear a bit of the back log with three short, sweet, and much overdue mini-reviews. These won’t be nearly as in depth as most of my other reviews, but I wanted to at least share my thoughts.
First up: Serena Restaurant – Pakistani – 2309-11 W Devon Ave – West Rogers Park – ****
Serena is the new restaurant from the former chef at Usmania, which I considered to be the best Pakistani restaurant in Chicago. Usmania and Serena unsurprisingly have a lot in common. While not Charlie Trotter’s by any stretch of the imagination,both lean more upscale than most other restaurants on Devon. They each also have very extensive menus. One of Serena’s quirks, however, is that it has a substantial selection of Chinese dishes. Some of you may know that Usmania’s ownership group also runs a Halal-Chinese restaurant on Devon, and it looks like the chef decided to bring several of those recipes along with him.
The dining room is quite large, and when we dined on a Sunday evening, just a couple months after it opened, it was mostly empty. I hope the word has gotten out a bit more since I was there, because the service was prompt and pleasant, and the food was quite good. Their paratha was perfectly soft and flaky. My Mutton Quorma was among the best renditions of that dish that I’ve had, with tender meat and a delicious gravy highlighted by generous amounts of ginger, garlic, and coriander. My date went with the Puneer Makhani, which is basically firm tofu in a rich and bright orange-colored butter sauce. Perfect for dipping paratha, naan, or your bare hand, if that’s your style. I’m interested to go back to Usmania and see how its kitchen is holding up under the new leadership, but if you’re looking for somewhere new to try on Devon, you won’t regret visiting Serena.
Second: Phoenix Restaurant – Chinese – 2131 S Archer Ave – Chinatown – **
My first exposure to dim sum (essentially Chinese tapas) came during a slow weekday afternoon trip to Chinatown when most of the world was working. While the mental image most people conjure when thinking of dim sum involves flagging down carts of delicious dishes as they’re wheeled around a hectic dining room, the odd time we chose to go made our meal a much more traditional restaurant experience.
Like tapas, one of the main perks of dim sum is trying several different dishes, even if you’re eating with a small group. On this day, the girlfriend and I split for six plates, which included several hits and misses. One miss was my bowl of Steamed Spare Ribs with Black Bean Sauce, or, more accurately, spare rib tips. The amount of meat on the bones was disappointing, and chewing through the meat that was there gave my jaw a serious workout. Additionally, while the flavor of the Baby Octopus with Curry Sauce was fine, the meat itself was, again, awfully chewy. I know cooking octopus properly is exceedingly difficult, but I’ve had it prepared well enough times to know that this dish could have been much better.
Two passable but not mind blowing dishes were the Cha Siu Bao (BBQ pork buns), which were on par with what I’ve had at the exceedingly non-authentic Wow Bao, and Fu Pei Geun (fried tofu skin roll). The two winners of the day were the Pan Fried Crepe and the Ha Gao (steamed dumplings with a tasty shrimp, bamboo, and green onion filling). The crepe had a wonderful textural combination of crispy outside skin immediately followed by tender rice noodles and shrimp insi.
Overall, I was satisfied with my first venture into the world of dim sum, but I’m looking forward to trying a few of the Chicago’s other options.
Lastly: Chicago Curry House – Nepalese / Indian – 899 S Plymouth Ct – South Loop – ****
Chicago Curry House is tucked away in the South Loop, a couple blocks off Michigan Avenue. The menu offers a nice mix of Indian and Nepalese dishes, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t realize they were separated until well after our meal. My primary reason for moving this restaurant to the top of my must-try list was for the Nepalese side of the menu…but I totally whiffed and we ordered all Indian options. I’ll need to go back and correct this error soon.
The good news is that all the items we did try were excellent. Our group of four split a mix of meat and vegetarian entrees. The Lamb Curry was a standout, with a burst of cardamom in its savory broth, and the Vegetable Kofta featured perfect little vegetable and cheese dumplings in a creamy and mildly spiced sauce which we were all dipping naan in throughout the meal. The Chicken Sahi Korma is somewhat similar to the kofta, but with a sweeter almond-based sauce. On the other end of the spectrum, the Aloo Gobhi had perfectly cooked pieces of cauliflower and potatoes with ginger and a delicately spiced sauce.
If you don’t have time to travel up to Devon for great Indian food and want to save a few bucks over downtown’s other top Indian option (India House), Chicago Curry House is unquestionably your best bet. If any of you CCF readers are going, do me a favor and order a couple Nepalese dishes, then tell me about them in the comments.
Hope you all had a great holiday season. Wanted to start the new year off right with some long overdue additions to the Chicago Cab Fare recommendation list, including two countries making their first appearance! Be on the lookout for some brief (and also long overdue) reviews of two of these spots in the near future, as I’ve already had an opportunity to visit Phoenix for my first dim sum experience (see my girlfriend’s artfully constructed Instagram collage from this meal to the right), as well as Serena for my birthday dinner.
I was also excited to learn about Den Den and Chill Cafe. The only Chicago Eritrean restaurant I’d heard of before Den Den closed long ago, so it will be cool to see if I can pick out any differences that it’s got from Ethiopian food. Kyrgyz cab drivers continue to be among some of the nicest I’ve met, which makes me look forward to trying their food a bit more than I otherwise would be. Friendly people make the tastiest food (the French are the exception to this statement).
- Chinese – Phoenix Restaurant – 2131 S Archer Ave – Chinatown
- Eritrean – Den Den Restaurant – 6635 N Clark – Rogers Park
- Indian – Biriyani’s – 2739 W Devon Ave – West Rogers Park
- Kyrgyz – Chill Cafe – 2949 W Belmont – Avondale
- Pakistani – Serena Restaurant – 2309-11 W Devon Ave – West Rogers Park
- Pakistani – Shan Restaurant – 5060 N Sheridan Rd – Uptown
- Serbian – Coffee Slasticarna Drina – 2501 W Lawrence Ave – Lincoln Square / Ravenswood
Moroccan – Petite Pita – 3952 N Sheridan Ave – Lakeview – *
When a Moroccan cab driver recently recommended Petite Pita, a nondescript Mediterranean joint by the Sheridan Red Line stop, I was immediately suspicious. I’ve been past the place 100 times, and I’ve barely seen anyone in it, let alone anyone who appeared to actually be Moroccan. Even still, my drivers have rarely led me astray, so I decided to give it a shot.
Sometimes it’s best to trust your intuition. I walked in for a weeknight dinner to find the restaurant completely empty. Even more disheartening, there was the distinct sound of mariachi music emanating from the kitchen. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m aware that most restaurant kitchens in Chicago are staffed largely by Latinos, regardless of the type of cuisine being prepared, and they typically do a great job. That being said, if I’m going to a restaurant because of its alleged authenticity, I do expect at least one person from that country involved in the preparation of my meal. However, at Petite Pita there wasn’t, and it showed.
The menu at Petite Pita is pretty standard Mediterranean fare, with a daily tagine special serving as the only indication of the owner’s Moroccan roots. We started with an appetizer of stuffed grape leaves, which were fine, but no better than you’d find in the prepared food aisle at your neighborhood grocery store.
From there I moved on to a beef shawarma plate, while my friend opted for the lamb with couscous. When we received our orders, I had immediate food envy, but that was short lived. While her lamb was tender, the vegetables were overcooked and bland. My shawarma, on the other hand, was flat out bad. The meat was tough, gristly and flavorless. If I wasn’t starving and a little compulsive about not wasting money, I wouldn’t have eaten it.
Overall, while Petite Pita may be convenient for those of us living on the North Side, it’s not even worth the easy trip. This is a case where Yelp ratings can be deceiving. I’m completely dumbfounded how 100 reviewers have given this place an average rating of four stars. For a quick, cheap and tasty Moroccan fix, save your money and head south to Zad, near Belmont and Broadway.
I know, I know. It’s been way too long. A couple crazy months at the office have made it tough for me to do any reviews, but I have been hard at work collecting recommendations for the list. If you’re dying to know the latest recommendations as they come in, be sure to follow @ChicagoCabFare on Twitter. I always tweet recommendations out right after I’m told. Without further ado, here are nine new cabbie-approved eateries you should check out. I’m pretty psyched to check out the two Haitian restaurants on the list!
- Moroccan – Petite Pita – 3952 N Sheridan Ave – Lakeview
- Afghan – Afghan Kabob – 4040 W Montrose Ave – Irving Park
- Senegalese – Sunugal African Restaurant – 2051 E 79th St – South Chicago
- Kenyan – East African Restaurant – 5959 N Broadway – Edgewater
- Jordanian – Pita Alsharq – 7336 W Lawrence Ave – Harwood Heights
- Haitian – Chez Violette – 2311 W Howard St – West Rogers Park
- Haitian – Sweet Nick’s Caribbean – 741 W Howard St – Rogers Park
- Indian – New Zaika Restaurant – 1316 N Clybourn Ave – Near North Side
- Jamaican – Caribbean American Bakery – 1539 W Howard St – Rogers Park
Ethiopian – Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant – 6120 N Broadway St – Edgewater – ****
In my last review, I discussed the nerve-racking nature of taking the CEO of my company to a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant I had never been to. That turned out better than expected, but I think the fear was still in the back of my mind while I decided the next culinary adventure on which to take my colleagues.
If Pakiza was unknown and somewhat sketchy, Ethiopian Diamond in Edgewater is exactly the opposite. First, I’ve been there several times, even before I started this blog. Second, it’s a nice, clean place with good service. I’ve even taken my mom there. My optimism about how much the group would enjoy it must have come through in my invitation email, because we had more than twice as many people in our party this time around.
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Indian/Pakistani – Pakiza Restaurant – 1011 N Orleans St – Near North Side – ***
In most cases, getting some extra face time with the CEO of your company should be seen as a good thing for one’s career. So, why was I more than a little nervous when the head of my company surprisingly opted to join the group of coworkers I had invited to try one of my cab driver recommendations? If you’ve been reading Chicago Cab Fare for a while, you’ll know it’s common for the stops on my list to be the kinds of hole-in-the-wall dives you don’t typically plan to take someone with such influence on your livelihood. In particular, the restaurant I’d chosen – Pakiza – certainly didn’t look like much from the outside, and its three Yelp reviews did little to inspire confidence.
In the end, though, my worries were completely unwarranted. Yes, Pakiza is a dive. Yes, the cleanliness of the bathroom was on par with the Port-O-Potties at Lollapalooza. But the food was pretty good, and nobody called in sick the next day. I’ve got to consider that a success. Like most restaurants targeting Chicago’s cab-driving population, Pakiza is just as much a social club as it is a restaurant. There’s a pool table, a couple ’80s era video games, and a mini convenience store. Also true to form, Pakiza doesn’t have a printed menu or servers, so you’ll have to bear with me on not having exact names for dishes.
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Pakistani – Khan’s BBQ Restaurant – 2401 W Devon Ave – West Rogers Park – ****
It’s been a while since our last review, but trust me, the wait was worth it.
I recently met up with Rashid Temuri, better known as the one and only @ChicagoCabbie on Twitter, for a meal at the highly-regarded Pakistani restaurant Khan BBQ in West Rogers Park. Thankfully, my good friend (and supremely talented filmmaker) Samantha happened to be visiting Chicago for the weekend. It seemed like a natural opportunity for us to join forces, so she brought along her gear and we filmed this short video review. I think you’re all going to enjoy it. Let me know what you think in the comments, and we’ll hopefully get the chance to do more of these in the future.
It’s been a while since I let you know about some of the recent additions to the Recommendation List, so here’s a quick look at what my cabbies have been plugging recently.
- Algerian – Icosium Kafe – 5200 N Clark St – Andersonville
- Kyrgyz – Jibek Jolu – 5047 N Lincoln Ave – Lincoln Square
- Mexican – Mi Tierra – 2528 S Kedzie Ave – Little Village
- Indian – Pista House – 2501 W Devon – West Rogers Park
- Nepalese – Himalayan Restaurant – 8265 W Golf Rd – Niles
Out of these, I’m definitely most excited to try Jibek Jolu. I’ve never experienced Kyrgyz cuisine, and this spot is apparently pretty popular with natives and outsiders alike.
Beyond the new recommendations, I wanted to share this snapshot from my recent meal at one of the most highly praised Pakistani restaurants on Devon – Khan BBQ. That handsome gentleman I’m sitting with is Chicago’s most famous taxi driver, Rashid Temuri (better known to his 4,000 Twitter followers as @ChicagoCabbie). While my good friend Samantha was in town for a visit this weekend, I took advantage of her superior cinematography and directorial skills to film Chicago Cab Fare’s first video review, with Rashid serving as a special guest. Be on the lookout for that in the coming weeks.