There's a playpen in the corner of Hema's Kitchen, a tiny, ten-year-old Indian restaurant on the edge of Rogers Park, where chef-owner Hema Potla keeps a careful eye on her two grandsons, Rahul and Rohan, while she works. As the aroma of Eastern spices wafts around them, the toddlers munch on M&M's--a decidedly Western treat. The scene is a microcosm of the neighborhood, reflecting the convergence of cultures along bustling Devon Avenue.
Heading east on Devon from the twin pillars of middle America--the shopping mall (Lincoln Village) and the little league baseball field (Thillens)--is like traveling from Karachi to Jerusalem, Delhi, Kiev, and Cairo in a matter of blocks. For decades Chicago's Orthodox Jewish community dominated the strip, but now Hebrew signs heralding kosher products vie for attention with Cyrillic figures calling to Russian and Ukrainian immigrants and Arabic characters proclaiming their products "zabiha" or "halal."
Across the street from the Zabiha Pakistani Meat Market, which is next door to Hashalom, an upscale Israeli-Moroccan-American restaurant, is Rosenblum's World of Judaica, which bills itself as the midwest's oldest and largest full-service Jewish bookstore. Nearby, adjacent to Gitel's Kosher Pastry Shop, is lqra' Book Center, an outlet for tracts on Islam. Scattered here and there along the three-mile stretch of groceries, sari shops, international video stores, and some of the best Near Eastern restaurants in the city are Pekin House, Thai Spice, Klujian Rugs, Toham African restaurant, the Assyrian American Association of Chicago, Cuneen's Irish bar, Angel Guardian Croatian Catholic Church, pizza joints, and Cantonese takeout shops.
"I have made so many wonderful friends in Chicago," says Potla. "Hindus, Moslems; I have Jewish friends, Mexican, Pakistani friends."
Raised a Hindu in Hyderabad in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Potla was married off by her family at age 14 to a sailor-turned-writer. Her husband, Samuel, was anything but traditional. A convert to Christianity and strongly influenced by Western ideas, he encouraged her to go to school, where she earned a B.A. in political science and a master's degree in economics. He also encouraged her to break with Indian tradition and start her own business, so she developed a very successful one-stop shop for upper-class Indian women featuring a salon, a beauty and cosmetic supply house, a textile shop, and a tailoring service.
Enticed by her growing number of contacts in the West, Potla and her daughter, Prameela, packed up and moved to Chicago in 1987. Sam and their son-in-law, Herald Kumar, followed soon after. "I wasn't able to duplicate here what I had built up in India," Potla explains. "I came with some money, but not enough to get the training and permits required. So I took a job cooking at Shalimar."
Working for that now-defunct Pakistani restaurant on Western just off Devon was initially a shock. "My first day there I realized I had to learn Spanish to get along with all the kitchen help," she says.
As she picked up Spanish, she also studied English, Hindi, and Urdu to complement her native Telugu. It wasn't long before Potla was lured downtown to become assistant chef at the Klay Oven. She stayed there for three years before noticing a Pakistani restaurant for sale less than a block from where she lived. Again, her husband said, "Go for it." So Hema's Kitchen opened in 1991.
"It's a small place, seating 25 or so. But we've had up to 50 or 60 people here for a private party," Potla recalls. "Of course, we had to move the playpen and some guests stood outside for a while."
"The good thing about being small is I can make everything fresh each day. I cook five pounds of lentils, all my chutneys and spices, and make one and a half to two gallons of yogurt a day." She creates a spicy, uncooked green chutney from cilantro, onion, cumin, lemon peel, and green peppers ground together, and a sweet-and-sour red chutney of tamarind, raisins, mango powder, brown sugar, salt, and chili powder cooked, blended and strained. Individual marinades are prepared for chicken, lamb, fish, and vegetables, each with a different combination of spices. For her very spicy vindaloo, for example, Potla creates a sauce of vinegar, coconut, and curry leaves mixed with "a lot of red chili powder." With its cozy atmosphere and low prices Hema's has been a neighborhood success. Although her husband died in 1995, Potla says, "Things are very good for me here." But, she adds, "He was my best friend and I miss him a lot." As a memorial to Sam, Potla is funding the construction of a church in Katavaram, in southern India. "it is a Christian church," she notes, "but like our life here, it will be open to all people of the community--Christians and Jews and Moslems and Hindus."
Hema's Kitchen is at 6406 N. Oakley, 773-338-1627.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.