After Midnight It's Never Just About the Food | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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After Midnight It's Never Just About the Food

Eating Late

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Parked cabs line the curbs outside Baba Palace, a 24-hour Pakistani-Indian restaurant on the corner of Chicago and Orleans. A large sign in the window promises a Meal Deal for $4.50.

Inside, men from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa congregate at all hours of the night, many stopping in two or three times a shift. In one of the two front rooms satellite TV beams in the Pakistani news channel Geo for the Urdu speakers. Al Jazeera is on in the back room.

Baba Palace is the oldest of the cabbie outposts nearby, according to Mohammad Malik, who bought the restaurant with his brother in 1996, when it was located at Hubbard and Clark. In ten years, he claims, he's raised the price of a meal only a dollar. "I was a cabdriver too," he says.

Malik estimates that 80 percent of his clientele is cabbies, but Baba Palace, which has a spiffy Web site (www.babapalace.com), is hardly a well-kept secret. There are other customers, mostly men--students looking for food that reminds them of home, a businessman who got hooked 11 years ago when he was a student, a software developer from out of town who's used the Internet to find local restaurants serving halal meat. The restaurant also attracts its share of foodies--there are favorable posts about it on the culinary chat site LTHForum.com. Some people come in simply looking for a place that's cheap and open late.

Around 11 o'clock on a recent Tuesday night Malik stands behind the counter in a tunic and baggy trousers. An American flag is tacked to the hutch behind him, near a display case that offers discount phone card brands like Crazy, Mafia, Go Crazy, Rocket, and Extreme. Several cabdrivers, identifiable by the earpieces that have been in vogue since the city banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving, approach Malik and place their orders.

Lassis are available, but nearly everyone asks for tea, made with milk and cardamom and served in Styrofoam cups. The popular Meal Deal consists of a smallish portion of a fixed menu item (chicken tikka, frontier chicken, chicken with chiles, yogurt-marinated chicken boti) or one of several specials, which range from mutton to egg curry to a Friday fried-fish special. There's a choice of rice or naan on the side; a large order, $8, comes with rice or two naan.

With the exception of the grilled items, the food sits in steam trays behind the counter--Malik simply scoops it onto the plates. But "the bread has to be fresh," he says. "Not even a minute old." He leans over a microphone and calls the orders into the kitchen: "Uno naan. Dos naan." The Mexican grill man doesn't cook the meals, Malik insists, "except in case of emergency."

After placing their orders the cabdrivers choose a table in one of the three spacious rooms or along the wall near the counter. Often they know each other by sight, but they say they can sit down with just about anyone and feel welcome.

The restaurant is sparsely decorated with pictures of mosques and framed verses from the Koran. On the wall facing the front door is an enormous, slickly designed menu board with photographs that show you what you're ordering.

When the bread arrives from the kitchen, Malik calls people up to the counter to get their orders. Asked about the food, one regular damns it with faint praise, saying, after a substantial pause, that it's "not bad." Another adds that it's "not as spicy" as the food at Zaiqa, one of two 24-hour places down the street on Orleans (Kababish is the other). Even I found the chana dal rather bland (my friend, who's traveled in India, called it "earthy tasting"). The mixed vegetables--cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, and green beans in a tomato sauce--were also bereft of heat, though there's a spicy raita you can help yourself to at the counter. The large, doughy naan were delicious and noticeably fresh--the Meal Deal beats Subway, no question. And though the menu is meat heavy, the specials always include two vegetarian dishes.

The cabbies say there are other draws. They come to use the bathroom, take a break from driving, drink tea, play pool, use the prayer room in the basement, and socialize. They trade war stories about passengers, who've been known to litter, vomit, or even urinate in their cabs--or to flash city badges before exiting with hollow promises to return with the fare.

Late on another recent night, three middle-aged cabdrivers sit at a table in a room full of cricket fans absorbed in the third match of a series between England and Pakistan. (England went on to a huge loss, and Pakistan won the series the following week.) Sipping tea, the men commiserate with one another about their frequent tickets--for picking up customers near the corner, for doing U-turns, for double-parking. Sometimes they don't even know they've been issued one until it appears as a mark on their record or arrives in the mail ("flying tickets," cabbies call them). Fighting the citations takes time they don't have, and some have learned it gets them nowhere. "The city's the crook, you know," complains a Pakistani man named Das. He says he tried to contest a ticket once, but on hearing his heavily accented English the administrative hearing officer dismissed him, saying, "I don't understand your language."

At Baba Palace Das found a sympathetic ear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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