Young and hungry: Students find affordable South Asian cuisine in Rogers Park

Young and hungry: Students find affordable South Asian cuisine in Rogers Park

Today I’m off duty, so I’m turning the blog over to Katherine Bernot, my current intern, who also happens to be a senior at Northwestern. Katherine knows first-hand the struggles of being food-obsessed but living on a student’s budget. In that spirit, every now and then I’m going to give her a chance to talk about some of her budget-friendly discoveries. Today’s find: affordable, authentic South Asian food in Rogers Park.

As many of my fellow students know, budget food often means boring food. ‚ It tends to be greasy, bland and uninspired; quantity and price tend to trump flavor ($5 footlong, anyone?) But lest we resign ourselves to sub-standard sliders and ramen, I’ve undertaken a quest to find the delicious, less than $10 meals I know are out there. The good news is, with a sense of adventure and a little luck, they’re not so hard to find.

Exhibit A: This past Saturday night, a friend and I were craving authentic South Asian food, but March Madness-related beer purchases had nearly wiped out our cash supply. Luckily, my friend - who fancies himself a bit of an expert in this arena - led me to one of his favorite restaurants on Devon Avenue. From the street, Ghareeb Nawaz has an unassuming, hole-in-the-wall vibe that doesn’t quite do justice to the mouth-watering food beyond its front door. As a true Muslim establishment, it serves zabiha halal food, a term similar to kosher laws for Jews, that indicates the meat conforms to Muslim dietary rules. Their menu offers both Indian and Pakistani dishes, which are posted on the wall along with photos, all for less than $5.

Paratha and shami kababs at Ghareeb Nawaz

My friend told me that Ghareeb Nawaz is known for its biryani (rice) dishes, which can be prepared with chicken, lamb, goat, beef, fish, vegetables or kheema (minced lamb or goat curry with peas). We tried the chicken biryani, which didn’t disappoint. For a paltry $3.99, we received a huge mound of delicious basmati rice with generous pieces of juicy chicken, onions and cooling yogurt sauce. The basmati rice had a wonderful perfume from the cardamom and a golden hue as a result of the saffron, while the chicken was spiced with cumin, tumeric and even more cardamom. Despite our best efforts - and the fact we’re both hungry college students - we only made it about halfway through the giant portion.

Though the restaurant is rightfully proud of its biryani, the $4.99 shami kabab plate we tried next stole the spotlight. Just try for a moment to forget the mental image of “kebobs” as dried-out meat cubes on sticks served at summer street festivals. In Pakistani and Indian restaurants, kebabs can be entire plates or sandwiches loaded with either succulent cubed or well-seasoned ground beef. Ghareeb Nawaz serves kebabs of tandoori chicken, beef, shami (ground mutton) or chapli (minced beef). The shami kabob arrived as a plate of four fork-tender patties with sliced onions and more of the delicious yogurt sauce on the side. The best way to eat it is with a side order of paratha - a soft, unleavened Indian flatbread made with flower and ghee (clarified butter). How something as simple as flour and butter could make a bread so delicious is a mystery I’m still trying to wrap my head around. To eat the kebab platter properly, a diner should first break off pieces of the paratha using the right hand. In some South Asian cultures, eating with the left hand is considered unclean and improper, so stick with the right one if you want to try a traditional meal. Using the piece of paratha, you can then pick up pieces of the shami patty and onion, finally dipping the whole package into the yogurt sauce. The delicate spices of the shami kabab were not overpowering and were offset perfectly by the cool yogurt sauce. Like many of the dishes we tried, spices seemed restrained and didn’t overwhelm the taste of the meat itself.

As my friend and I leaned back in our seats to eye the enormous portions of food we still had left to eat, I also surveyed the scene. Maybe I was just projecting my New Jersey roots, but the 24-hour joint reminded me of a diner: during the evening, it’s a revolving door of families, post-office 30-somethings and teenagers just hanging out. In the wee hours of the morning, though, it becomes a go-to spot for South Asian taxi drivers seeking comforting late-night snacks and tastes from home. Ghareeb Nawaz was proof there’s no need to sacrifice authenticity and flavor to save a few bucks, and you can definitely ditch the greasy wax paper bag full of fries for something better, even late at night.

Ghareeb Nawaz, 2032 W. Devon Avenue, (773) 761-5300, dine in/carry-out, rear lot parking available.