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Nonpareil Nan: Baba Palace, Chicago


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Nonpareil Nan: Baba Palace, Chicago

David Hammond | May 19, 2003 03:18 PM

Heading home after a late afternoon barbecue that left me a little hungry, I stopped by Baba Palace to pick up dinner for the family.

This is one of the semi-legendary “cab joints” mentioned by Seth, Rene and others – it is, I believe, the most recent incarnation of Baba’s Place, which used to be on Hubbard.

Display samples of the day’s selections are set on the counter in small labeled bowls, covered in Saran Wrap. People come up, queue in no apparent pattern, and order by pointing. My assumption is that the display items were necessitated in part by the range of languages spoken by the clientele, who seemed to be mostly Arabic and African.

I went with a savory stew of mutton and chickpeas (cholay goshat), beef and spinach (keema palak) and a small order of lightly seasoned fava beans (foul). This all came with four huge slabs o’ nan, for about $20.

The mutton stew was very good, with deep satisfying flavor, though it was not very meaty (not a bad thing). The spinach was a good complement, though the fava beans were a little plain.

The nan, however, was remarkable; blasting home under the Lake Street el tracks, I tore open the aluminum wrapping and the steam literally fogged my windshield so that I had to slow down until it cleared. It was some amazingly moist, warm, and delicious stuff – the absolutely ideal tool for soaking up stew juice, an edible eating implement. This flat bread must be a favorite of the regulars, too – people kept coming up asking for more, and a shrunken little man in a handsome skullcap kept rushing in from the kitchen with baskets full, only to be met with what I believe were escalating demands for “more nan” from the genial and somewhat competent countermen. Service was slow, but I was in no rush (I continuously assured them of that, and they just as continuously apologized for the long wait – I think the nan preparation is the bottleneck in this operation, but it’s worth it).

One outstanding characteristic of all the food at Baba Palace is that it’s not oily or greasy. Foul I’ve had at, say, Tut Oasis in Oak Park, used to be swimming in oil, but every dish I had at Baba Palace had a clean, almost unadorned, flavor, with the natural tastes of the mutton and beans coming through without an oily overlay. Almost every dish on the menu was described as “spicy,” but the dishes I had were almost conservatively spiced. Again, not a bad thing.

I saw some pink stuff in a case, and the counterman told me it was custard. It was a good finish to a somewhat spicy dinner – light, creamy and fruity...and pink. Next time I go, I’m going to have the Rooh Afza Milk, which is described as “milk with special syrup, almond, pistachio, green cardamom, etc.”

The question has been raised as to whether a woman would feel comfortable at predominantly male Middle Eastern places like this, and I have no idea how to answer that except to say that there were two American-looking women at one table who seemed pretty comfortable, and all the people I interacted with were very friendly and welcoming.

Baba Palace is open ALL the time, and they have daily specials.

Baba Palace
334 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60610

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