This is a life that thousands lead in Chicago, and that many more of us pass fleetingly through. One minute you are a young man looking for work—in Manila, in Benin City, in Tashkent or Almaty. You get what everyone else around you called a stroke of good fortune—the chance to go to America. And the next day you are here, driving a cab in a strange city, seeing it as much in the dead of night as in the day, a parade of strangers in and out of your car. What keeps you rooted in this mobile existence? What reminds you of the home you ripped yourself out of?
Food. A restaurant founded by your countrymen, serving familiar tastes of home. That explains the sudden boom in Central Asian restaurants, often 24-hour ones for the cabbie market, on the northwest side in the last few years, all serving some minor variation on what people eat for a thousand miles in any direction in that part of the world: stewed lamb and rice, kabobs, dumplings.
There are suddenly many of these places in Chicago—Jibek Jolu, Lazzat, Dastorkon, Bai Cafe, Bereke, and no doubt others. But for me one of this pretty new crop stands apart for the care with which the food is made, and the hints of spices from around the central Asian region which make it livelier than so much food from this part of the world.
The restaurant is called Chill Cafe; it was recommended to me by Julia Kramer, who heard of it from chef Abe Conlon of Fat Rice. The name is nondescript, but that's okay since it's not actually listed on the outside anyway, which even after a year and a half merely says "Soups—Sandwiches—Pastries."
The owners, a young couple named Ilkhom and Sultana, are ethnically Turkish but come from Russia.
The main cook is an older woman named Tamina, who with a single assistant turns out a remarkable amount of freshly-made food, from soup to entrees to desserts, every day.
If the menuboard in Russian isn't much help to you (there is an English paper menu now), you can just choose from the offerings on the counter, like samsas ($2.00), meat and potato pies with a beautifully flaky crust. Also on the counter might be hachapuri ($3.00), a bread like Indian naan, but spread inside with sour cream and parsley.
A meal usually begins with soup in this part of the world, and the dumpling soup ($6.00) gives off a whiff of curry and other spices, which makes it more robust and interesting than it might be elsewhere.
Likewise lamb kebabs, called Lula-Kebabs ($9.00), have the gamy tang of Middle Eastern food more than the simple grilled flavor of Eastern European kebabs, while I'll simply credit Tamina's abilities as a cook for the hearty satisfaction of her plov ($9.00), lamb and rice stew.
Salads follow a Russian model; I tried this potato salad, called Olivier ($2.00; note the professional-style plating in a circle form) which is dotted with carrots, peas... and hunks of sausage.
By this point you are stuffed, yet you can't resist Tamina's homemade Smetannik ($2.00/slice), layers of honey-flavored cake topped with sour cream-cheese frosting and decorated with a little raspberry jam.
For the immigrant driving a cab, a simple taste of home is enough to console and reconnect you, I suspect. But a taste of home as good as Chill Cafe gives you more than that— it gives you something to brag about to the next passenger who strikes up a conversation about where you like to eat in Chicago.
2949 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (map)
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