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Lunch in the Loop: Rock the Naanwiches at Naansense

Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

I'm all about ridiculous names. I mean, I have the worst Twitter handle ever. So when I walked by Naansense, I had to roll my eyes a little. Then, of course, I stepped in. According to one of the employees, Naansense has been open for about a month now in the old Curried space, which was also an Indian carry-out restaurant.

I've noticed a spattering of new lunch restaurants popping up down in the Loop these days, which is terrific. There's also a new ramen restaurant, Ajida, just down the street from Naansense (both of these are close to the Clark and Lake El stop). Expect a review on that later. I'm writing this now so you guys can hold me accountable if I forget to go, by saying mean things to make me feel bad about myself. But, your words can't hurt me. I already feel bad about myself!

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Naansense has taken the Chipotle model of ordering your food. You start with your format—either a naan wrap, a salad bowl, or a rice bowl (the roti has been taken off the menu). Then you pick your filling: chicken, pork, lamb, lentil croquettes, or fresh paneer. After that, you pick some toppings and sauces, and you're good to go. But unlike Chipotle, they have chef's recommended picks, which makes it much easier to order.

I have two favorites, one of which is the chicken naanwich ($6.62). Volume-wise, this is a lot of bang for your buck, as it's loaded with lightly charred chicken, which is moist, rich, and slightly smoky. It's topped with greens, pickled onions and tomatoes, cucumber, makhani sauce, and garlic yogurt chutney. As you can see, though, it's kind of messy to eat, especially since there are multiple sauces on it. The pickled vegetables serve as a sharp flavor to make each bite more vibrant, and the makhani sauce is a mild and creamy tomato-based sauce with a mild curry flavor.

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The lamb naanwich ($8.62) is also quite good. The lamb is extraordinarily tender and juicy, and is almost free of the gamy flavor you frequently associate with lamb. It's topped with cabbage slaw, tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpea noodles, and finished with korma sauce and apple tamarind chutney. This wrap gets a bit soggy, so I'm just warning you to hunch over the table in case you mess up the ol' trousers. The korma sauce lends a peppery mix of pistachio, ginger, and cardamom, while the little chickpea squiggles add some crunch.

The namesake naan that they're on is chewy, sturdy, and oven-charred. Considering the sandwiches are a bit wet, it's definitely a necessity that the bread is substantial. Bonus points for being delicious, too.

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I'm a little surprised to see pork on the menu, considering you don't see a whole lot of pork in Indian cooking. The pork rice bowl ($7.62) is my least favorite, because the flavors are unbalanced. It's topped with pickled onions, cabbage slaw, vindaloo sauce, and garlic yogurt chutney. The spicy vindaloo sauce is laced with vinegar, coconut, and red chiles, and with the pickled onions on top, you get a pretty sturdy dose of vinegar overall, making it hard to appreciate the braised pork.

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The samosas ($2 for 2) leave a little to be desired in terms of execution. Both of my orders came dripping with fryer oil. The turkey samosas are filled with lightly seasoned ground turkey, and the vegetarian version is filled with the more typical curried potato.

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There are two types of fries ($2) on the menu, regular fries, and a spiced version. The previous issue with the greasy samosas also affects the fries; they soak up a fair amount of oil. Considering they are the battered type, that makes them harder to eat as they're soggy. The fried spuds are lightly dusted in a tart masala blend, which makes them more fun to eat, and they come with a yellow curry aioli for dipping.

Overall, if you're in the neighborhood, you should definitely swing by Naansense to catch one of the chicken or lamb naanwiches. They might make a naanbeliever out of you. See what I did there? No, I'm not proud of myself.

About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.

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