In July, I went to visit a few mall-based restaurants with two very trusty dining companions: Mike Gebert and Jennifer Olvera. Gebert won a James Beard award earlier this year for his food videos, and Olvera recently published Food Lovers’ Guide to Chicago, a compendium of worthy dining zones in and around our city.
We start our tour of strip malls at a darkened Korean place in a Niles. While patiently waiting for it to open, I asked Olvera why it seems that strip mall restaurants get no respect. She says “well, a lot of them are pretty nondescript, you know. A place like we’re standing in front of right now doesn’t do much to jump out at you from the street, mixed in here with a bank and lot of other chains.”
Gebert agreed that appearances aside, strip malls might very well be excellent places to find very good chow, interesting ethnic food that pleases in ways that go beyond what’s offered at the standard chain. “Obviously,” Gerbert says, “there are a lot of big ethnic populations in a place like Chicago, where they’ve moved out to the suburbs, and there’s a lot of second-tier real estate, a lot of second-tier shopping malls and things like that, so you kind of have to look for those – areas where Koreans, or Eastern Europeans or whoever, have moved to a particular suburb. And so look for those little shops and you often see them mixed together. On Milwaukee Avenue in Niles you’ll see Korean, Polish, Russian, Middle Eastern, all sort of mixed together side-by-side in these strip malls.
“But you kind of have to know where to look” Gerbert continues. “Bridgeview is a good example that’s well known – to some people at least – as to where Middle Easterners from the city moved. So, once you know that’s where the population is, you just look around and there’s all kinds of Middle Eastern places tucked into these shopping malls. There will be a bakery here, a place to get falafel and shawarma here, and a grocery.”
Olvera adds “You have to do some trial and error to find something that’s good. You’re going to find different tiers of quality wherever you go. But I think having a concentration of places gives you a lot better chance to find something special, and I think Bridgeview is a good example of that.”
Gilbert says “I think you definitely get more authentic places because there’s no built-in tourist base coming in there to eat that food. It’s not like Chinatown where people know to go to Chinatown. The majority of the population in Bridgeview is Polish and Irish, and I’m guessing the majority of those people have never had Middle Eastern food in Bridgeview, even though it’s a large part of the retail restaurant there. It’s mainly serving its own people, and so at least you get over that barrier of the things they’re offering are authentic. You’ll be able to find examples of things that you wouldn’t find in Lincoln Park, or somewhere where the Middle Eastern food is mostly serving a non-Middle Eastern audience.”
The Korean place looked like it was never going to open; I guess when you’re in a relatively low traffic area, you can take the day off without sacrificing a lot of revenue. Fortunately, in Niles and other northern suburbs, there are a lot of strip malls with restaurants offering authentic ethnic food. We go to a nearby place called Himalayan Restaurant & Bar, which serves Nepali food, a relatively neglected cuisine in Chicago.
Olvera says “What I like about a place like this is you wouldn’t necessarily notice it driving by, but I think it’s a place that people in the area probably come every day. I don’t know if it’s a place you’d drive to from the city, but when you’re in the area, it’s good to know there’s something unusual or out of the norm that’s not part of the whole chain scene that people generally associate with the suburbs. And the thing is, you can find these places everywhere, as long as you keep your eyes open and you’re willing to have an open mind and you’re willing to go inside and try.”
The server comes to our table with something to eat. Curious, I ask him “what do we have?” He tells us it’s “chutneys and crackers.” Chutney and crackers? Well, I’ve had that before, but part of the fun of dining at an ethnic place like Himalayan Restaurant and Bar is that flavors are frequently familiar though sometimes hard to pinpoint. We had an order of momo – Nepalese dumplings – and there was a flavor in there we couldn’t quite identify. Our server helped us out.
I ask him “In the momo, what kind of seasoning is there?”
He says “Momo we only put onion, black pepper, ginger…”
“Ginger!” I exclaim.
We also ordered a goat stew. Now, I like goat a lot, and this savory pot presented the meat in a sauce that had us playing the guessing game again. Olvera gives it a shot. “I’m trying to get the seasonings in the sauce,” she says, “because it feels different to me than straight-up Indian. Again, I think maybe it’s the cumin in there. There’s something in the background that’s maybe not typical or familiar to me when I think about a stew I’m going to have at an Indian restaurant. But it’s really rich, it has a lot of depth, and the goat’s pretty tender.”
We head over to Chaihanna, where they specialize in Uzbek cuisine. Our server at first seemed a little remote, but when he saw we were genuinely excited about the menu, he introduced himself as Kevin, which he told us is Kostya in Russian, but in Uzbekistan, they call him Constantine. He tells us “This is my family restaurant. We’re all from Uzbekistan. I was born there, my parents were born there. That’s how they know how to prepare this food. I grew up with this food.”
On the Uzbek menu, pickles show up several times. So we order a platter that includes a beautifully colorful collection of carrots, watermelon, cucumber and cabbage. Olvera lets out “I’m a huge fan of pickles, but I can’t quite figure out what’s up with this. I’m assuming carrot? What’s up with the spice in this? It’s really different from the watermelon.
I tell her “It’s clove.”
“Clove! You got it” Olvera replies.
I say “it’s not an unpleasant flavor, but it’s not the flavor you expect in a pickle.”
Olvera continues “the carrot is different than the cabbage is different than the watermelon. They all have a distinct flavor.”
I add “and it does seem like there’s a little bit of dill in there somewhere.”
“Definitely in the watermelon” Olvera adds.
Gebert jumps in with further analysis, and a little bit of history. “It’s definitely more spiced like medieval” he says, “or renaissance cooking where there wasn’t really a line between savory and sweet, and you used a lot of cinnamon or clove in like roast chicken dishes or something. It’s kind of like that. It’s very garlicky and yet it’s got almost Christmas spice flavors to it, too.”
As a food reporter, I’ve found that food is a universal topic of interest and conversation. Still, sometimes staff at small ethnic places might seem a little standoffish. Of course, that could just be my overly-outgoing American attitude. Or maybe servers at ethnic places are tired of taking back to the kitchen food that customers say is too spicy. My experience has been that if you demonstrate a sincere interest in – and respect for – the cuisine, the people at the small ethic place will open up and you’ll end up with something tasty that you’ve maybe never had before. You might even get a delicious insight into the cultures that produce the cuisine.
“And I think a lot of times if you come into a place like this,” says Olvera, “they’re more than willing to walk you through the menu and give you suggestions. But, I think you can come here and try something that’s more familiar and then try a single dish that is out of your comfort zone. So, you’re not going all-out and taking huge risks, but you’re notching yourself forward a little and finding new things every time you go out.
There’s a lot to be said for “comfort food” – familiar vittles that don’t challenge but rather fully satisfy and soothe with their familiarity. There’s also, of course, a lot to be said for food that nudges you into a new realm of taste and flavor. During our afternoon of lunches, Mike Gebert, Jennifer Olvera and I reaffirmed our faith that you can find deliciousness anywhere. Even in strip malls. Perhaps especially in strip malls.
Gebert says “You kind of have to know where to look.”
And Olvera adds “You can find these places everywhere, as long as you keep your eyes open and you’re willing to have an open mind.”
Music Button: Talking Heads, “Nothing but Flowers,” from the release Naked (Fly Records)
Food reporter David Hammond covers the culinary world for Eight Forty-Eight and other outlets.
He’s a founding moderator of LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site. You can also read his Food Detective column every Wednesday in the Chicago Sun-Times.