Food & Drink » Restaurant Reviews

Around the World in Curry

Ten restaurants offering curry dishes, from Jamaican to Japanese

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Anjin Mamiri

2739 W. Touhy | 773-262-6646


ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | closed monday | alcohol prohibited

At this, Chicago's only Indonesian restaurant, the menu doesn't seem too hung up on regional specificity, with the exception of coto makassar, a beef tripe soup from South Sulawesia, where owner Muhammed Rukli hails from. It's an interesting bowl, the base of which is peanut sauce mixed with the milky water that's been used to soak rice. But what brings it alive are the garnishes—a squirt of fresh lime, a sprinkling of fried garlic chips, and a liberal dose of sambal, a spicy condiment that comes in many varieties. This one is made in-house from whole soybeans, chile, and tomato. The coto makassar is served with buras, sections of compressed rice steamed in banana leaf and fragrant with coconut milk. Lontong, a similar rice preparation made without coconut milk, is just right for sopping up the peanut sauce that accompanies the satays (chicken, beef, and lamb) and salads, among them gado gado, a vibrant, carefully arranged composition of green beans, boiled eggs, carrots, sprouts, cucumber, and watercress; and ketoprak Jakarta, featuring rice noodles, bean sprouts, and cabbage drizzled with a thick, sweet soy sauce called kecap mani. There are also representations of popular noodle and rice dishes (notably the fried-noodle dish mie goreng and the fried-rice dish nasi goreng, both Chinese influenced) and dry curries such as the yellow chicken curry, ayam opor, and beef rendang. The appetizer section is full of interesting stuffed and fried bites, including martabak telor, beef, onion, and egg tightly wrapped in a pocket of crispy dough; jalangkote, chicken puffs stuffed with noodles, celery, and carrot; and siomay bandung, wedges of cabbage-wrapped tofu stuffed with potato and fish paste and dressed with peanut sauce and kecap mani. Near the back of the counter are individually portioned zip baggies filled with snacks, like the crispy deep-fried peanut- or dried-anchovy-studded wafers called rempeyek, often eaten with meals like a side of french fries, or a container of sweet pineapple-jelly-filled cookies called nastar, which are are baked with a savory pinch of cheddar cheese on top. Cool coconut-milk-based desserts are flavored with jackfruit and avocado. —Mike Sula

Arya Bhavan

2508 W. Devon | 773-274-5800



Cheerful pink napkins decorate the tables and colorful Rajasthani crafts brighten the walls at Arya Bhavan, which means "our home." But the main room is dominated by a 20-foot buffet, which on the weekends is laden with all-vegetarian curries, sweets, appetizers, rice, salad, and cooling raita. Along with traditional favorites like chana masala and mutter paneer are original creations by chef Jay Sheth. One of his best is the addictive undhia, a complex curry of eggplant, sweet potatoes, and plantains. Appetizers include the always popular samosas and spicy veggie cutlets. The satisfying uthappam, pancakes topped with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, are made to order at one end of the buffet and disappear quickly. Ordering from the lengthy menu allows one to try Indian specialties ranging from a delightful south Indian avial (vegetables cooked with coconut, yogurt, and chiles) to Kashmiri curry and rice. There are also 15 types of bread, including vegan varieties. —Cara Jepsen

Cafe Trinidad

557 E. 75th | 773-846-8081



This superfriendly family-run enterprise traffics in the flavors of Trinidad, which have been influenced over the centuries by African, East Indian, Creole, Syrian, Lebanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese cooks. "Brown down" stews—begun with a caramelized sugar base—and rich, spicy curries dress slow-cooked meats like jerk chicken, goat, beef, and oxtails and are accompanied by rice and pigeon peas. Alternatively, most of these can be ordered wrapped in a fresh fried roti, a circle of soft flatbread that can withstand a considerable portion bulked up with a mild potato-and-chickpea curry. Fat, snappy shrimp popped under the tooth, and curry crab and dumplings were similarly fresh. These all came with a choice of filling sides—sweet potatoes, callaloo, red beans and rice, collards, macaroni pie, plantains. The bright, sparkling space adorned with Trinidadian flags and lively with island tunes has a lot of nice house-made touches like the sweet and deadly Scotch-bonnet hot sauce and drinks like mauby, an unforgiving, bitter, and debatably restorative cold infusion made from the steeped bark of the carob tree. I had more appreciation for the sweet, bracing, and uncontroversially refreshing ginger beer, or sorrel, a fruity purple punch brewed from the hibiscus blossom. —Mike Sula

Chicago Curry House

899 S. Plymouth | 312-362-9999



The folks behind Highwood's Curry Hut didn't do themselves any favors by hiding Chicago Curry House, a white table-paper Nepalese-Indian spot, on the ground floor of a South Loop building surrounded by residential permit parking. But the menu is virtually identical to the mothership's—that is, a huge selection of familiar northern Indian dishes and a handful of Nepalese specialties, which emphasize ginger and garlic over the chiles and dairy of the more southerly regions. As far as I know, this is currently the only place offering Nepalese dishes within the city limits. Notable appetizers include the lamb choela, tender chunks of marinated meat with strips of nearly raw ginger, and spicy ground chicken- or vegetable-stuffed momo, which resemble Chinese soup dumplings and are served with a thick, powerfully tasty achaar made from pureed almonds, coriander, sesame, mustard, and cardamom seeds. An efficient way to sample the rest of the Nepalese offerings is by way of two thali samplers, one vegetarian, the other featuring bone-in goat and chicken curries. Both curries give off some admirable radiant heat above the milder vegetables and legumes. The thali come with sweet rice pudding, rice, raita, and a basket of hot roti to deliver it all from plate to puss. —Mike Sula

Ginza Restaurant

19 E. Ohio | 312-222-0600



Let us rejoice that places like Ginza Restaurant—housed in the divey Tokyo Hotel—live on amidst River North gentrification. A comfortably worn hole-in-the-wall, it attracts downtown workers and Japanese, the latter always a good sign. Don't look for fancy-pants maki or "fashion sushi"; instead you'll find old-school sushi and sashimi platters, reasonably priced for the neighborhood. But Ginza, in addition to predating the sushi frenzy that began in the 80s, is perhaps best known for traditional home-style Japanese dishes such as piping hot noodle soups, curry dishes, and tonkatsu, breaded, deep-fried pork chop. Service is congenial, and you've gotta love the unpretentious, pale wood sushi bar, chefs working away behind it diligently. —Kate Schmidt

Hema's Kitchen

2439 W. Devon | 773-338-1627



For years Hema's Kitchen, Hema Potla's homey Indian restaurant, drew flocks of fans to a tiny, cramped storefront where food was often hustled out of the kitchen by the beaming proprietor herself. But after rave reviews on Check, Please! transformed the crowd to a mob, she expanded, first with an adjacent dining room and then with a second location in Lincoln Park. Now the original spot is shuttered and she's gone upscale, around the corner, in full Devon Avenue style. I'd be lying if I said the new space has the raw charm of the old, but the food is as solid and satisfying as ever. Flaky lamb samosas were lightly seasoned and piping hot, though lacking the peas alluded to on the menu. Veggie dishes like aloo baigan matar—eggplant, potatoes, and peas in a tomato-coconut sauce heavily stocked with aromatic curry leaves—imparted a powerful burn, and chicken vindaloo, while heavy on the ghee, evinced an equally bold hand with the red chiles and curry leaves. The happy addition of a tandoor oven means the kitchen now turns out tender tandoori chicken and chewy naan as well. Bear in mind that it's still BYOB (no corkage fee) and the closest liquor store has a selection best described as bottom-shelf. —Martha Bayne


5359 N. Broadway | 773-506-0880



In Laos, Kevin Wong and his family were Chinese immigrants who operated their own restaurant, but when they came to the U.S. almost a quarter century ago his parents worked straight nine-to-five jobs. Now he's returned to the family business, offering the only Lao food available in the city. Similar to northern Thai Issan cuisine, it's supposed to be spicier than its neighbor's, and though Wong tones down his thin red and green coconut milk curries, on request he'll doctor individual orders to their appropriately nuclear levels. These stews—floating with fall-off-the-bone chicken or pork and tender vegetables such as miniature eggplants or julienned bamboo shoots—are meant to be eaten with sticky rice or rice vermicelli. There's also a pa lo stew, boiled eggs and firm tofu in a thin soy-based broth, with or without fatty chunks of pork belly, and a nourishing pho with beef and meatballs—deep and rich, but less redolent of five-spice seasoning than the many Vietnamese bowls in the neighborhood. There's a selection of salads—papaya, Lao ham (nam kao), and the beef salad called laap—the Lao national dish. Beyond an assortment of finger food—fried chicken, beef jerky, house-made rice, tapioca-based sweets, and sausage, milder but similar to the funky Thai Issan variety, there are other hidden treasures not on display, such as chicken noodle soup. Just ask Wong what's good and unusual and he'll set you up. —Mike Sula

Sticky Rice Thai

4018 N. Western | 773-588-0133



A wonder cabinet of northern Thai-focused food, Sticky Rice, run by a charming and very patient staff, is endlessly interesting and cheap enough to serve as your substitute kitchen. Their standard English-language menu would be novel enough, with things like deep-fried quail and shrimp on sugarcane, but thanks to a translation of the lengthy Thai-language menu, the options are almost inexhaustible. I've only excavated a tiny quadrant of both menus, but among the standouts are banana blossom salad, Burmese-style curry, duck curry with lychees, and northern Thai larb (made with ground pork and intestine). The only real problem with Sticky Rice is that it's so hard to relinquish these known pleasures for unknowns. But be bold: you can't spend your whole life eating jellyfish salad, after all. Also, for those interested in real grub: with dishes like fried worms and ant-egg omelet when in season, Sticky Rice is your Chicagoland insect-eating destination. —Nicholas Day

TAC Quick

3930 N. Sheridan | 773-327-5253



Young Andy Aroonrasameruang and his likable staff probably make it easier than anywhere else to get traditional stuff the way it's eaten in Thailand. Aside from the regular menu there's a clearly translated Thai menu available by request with almost 40 items you're not likely to encounter elsewhere without a working knowledge of the language—like a salad of shrimp, cashews, and fish maw, sort of a fishy pork rind that soaks up the flavor of the sauce like a crouton. Some were surprisingly rich and luscious for Thai cuisine, like minced chicken sweetened with thick soy sauce, garnished with crispy fried basil leaves, and served over quartered preserved duck eggs. TAC, which stands for Thai Authentic Cuisine, doesn't do breakfast, but they serve an omelet topped with pieces of chicken breast and doused with green curry that I would love to wake up to. Pad thai—which in many places has turned into the worst kind of bland, oversweetened mush—takes on another life when it's folded into an omelet. Aroonrasameruang pushes some excellent things on his specials boards too, including a tender grilled pork neck that approaches the narcotic succulence of the best barbecue. He also does a wild-boar curry with green Thai eggplant and meaty chunks of swine rimmed with thick rinds of gorgeous fat. It would take a good week of dedicated eating to work through all the interesting things on the menu. I was lucky enough to attend a special dinner organized by a pal of Aroonrasameruang's at which the chef prepared a few things not yet put to paper, including a tamarind curry with water spinach and pork loin that he makes for staff meals and a deep-fried mud fish topped with shredded green mango, with a gape wide enough to swallow a puppy. —Mike Sula

Tropical Time Jerk Chicken

1117 S. First, Maywood | 708-338-2003



The genial owner of Tropical Time, who goes by Drew, hails from Saint Catherine Parish, Jamaica, where he learned to cook from his mother. His jerk shack shares a common wall with a payday loan store just up the road from the Fourth District courthouse, providing a motherly balm in a culinary wasteland surrounding one of the centers of Cook County jurisprudence. His rich, stewy Caribbean dishes like curry goat or beefy, oily, fall-off-the bone oxtails would make a cheerful lunch break from the grim human drama on display there. Drew cooks over charcoal in an aquarium-style pit, which gives his jerk chicken a spicy smoke. His catfish escabeche—also jerked, cut into steaks, then grilled—has an even busier flavor when it's dressed with the vinegary sauce and amped with onions, carrots, and cooked-down Scotch bonnets. Drew's jerk sauce isn't incendiary, more vinegar than chile, and makes a nice dressing for blander sides like fried plantains, rice and beans, or soft sauteed cabbage. The remains of nearly everything served are moppable with the sweet, dense hard-dough bread he gets from Caribbean American Bakery in Rogers Park. —Mike Sula

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