Fill Up on Vegetarian Indian Food at Annapurna in Rogers Park


[Photographs: Mike Gebert]

If there's anywhere in this town I'll gladly give up meat, it's the 2500 to 2600 blocks of west Devon. That strip is home to two vegetarian restaurants where I'll eat happily and without the least sense of deprivation, Udupi Palace and Annapurna. Udupi Palace, famous for three-foot-long dosas, a kind of crispy pancake, has always been a bit posh and upscale by Devon standards, but Annapurna to its west was long one of the street's dives, a tatty snack shop and grocery with a grumpy old man running the place.


Now it has granite countertops and flat screen TVs running Indian musicals from the 1960s, and an apparently younger and hipper staff. A lot of spots along Devon have gotten that kind of facelift as all those Indian doctors and tech guys put money back into the immigrant community where they came from. But even spiffed up, Annapurna's soul is still in modest snacks served in institutional plastic serving trays, everyday Indian street food.


One I particularly like is chole bhatura. It's actually two things—chole is a spicy stew of chickpeas in a brown gravy or curry, and bhatura are puffy breads made with maida, a very finely milled flour.


It's supposed to be a breakfast dish, though there's nothing about it that accords with Western ideas of breakfast-- it's as robust and spicy as any Indian lunch or dinner dish. (And anyway, Annapurna doesn't open until 11 a.m.)


Here it comes on a platter dotted with other things. There are onions, a couple of chunks of jalapeño, a little pile of what looks like barbecued beef (it's actually chiles, stewed and made into a stringy paste).


And there's a little pile of something sweet—it looks like mashed rice or bread, with a sweet taste to it. Maybe someone knows its name, but I don't.

What fascinates me about this platter is trying to puzzle out how it's all meant to work. You scoop up the chole with the bhatura, obviously, but I find it hard to see how it needs onion or chiles along the way. And then the sweet stuff—does that somehow work with the chole, or is it relief from the spice? Is that what makes it breakfast, the little hint of sweetness with the texture of Malt-O-Meal? There's a whole different conception of how foods work together here, that I know I barely understand even as I enjoy it thoroughly—and, incidentally, don't miss the meat a bit.