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Pakistani Cabbie Places (Near-North)

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Pakistani Cabbie Places (Near-North)

Rene G | Nov 19, 2001 10:21 PM

Here’s a version of something I posted a while ago in chi.eats. I didn’t have time to revise it much so certain things may be a little out of date. Baba’s Place is my favorite of the four but Zaiqa’s atmosphere may be a little more comfortable to some.

The near-north Pakistani taxi driver hangouts I’ve been to are all somewhat similar. The clientele is almost exclusively male Pakistani taxi drivers. They are real bare-bones operations with virtually no decor. Some are not particularly clean. The food generally is quite good, often extremely good, but more home-cooking than elegant presentations. It often puts the food at the upscale Indian places, Gaylord for example, to shame. The price is right: it seems whatever you want it's six bucks or less. No alcohol is served. None of them have air conditioning but all have fans; depending on the weather the rooms can be pretty warm. Atmosphere is generally friendly if you're comfortable with the spartan surroundings. Even though I'm clearly an outsider I've always been treated very well. Many languages are spoken but English is always understood.

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Just a few blocks west of Vong and Brasserie Jo is a completely different world: Baba's is a classic Chicago Pakistani cab driver hangout. The parking lot next door is filled with taxis and the entryway is full of signs offering medallions and/or taxis for sale. Absolutely no decoration but there's a counter in front selling the essentials--lots of cigarettes and phone cards and there's a Coke machine. There are some tables and a few counter seats and an old big-screen TV playing Indian movies (there's a sign taped to it reading "Please turn off TV during prayers time"). There are pool tables in back and a mosque upstairs.

You place your order at the little window in back before the pool room. There are usually about 8 choices listed on a board near the window and everything's $6 ($4 for breakfast or small orders). Aloo kofta, mutton biryani, chicken tikka, chana masala, frontier chicken, and others. Take as much raita, sliced jalapenos, onions, and lime as you want from the tubs and pour yourself a glass of water. When your order is ready, they’ll call to you. The frontier chicken was a very large plate of small chicken morsels in a thin reddish sauce. Meat quality (and quantity) was surprisingly high--not a trace of skin, bone, or sinew. Sauce was very nice--very flavorful but not overly spicy and without excessive oil. A lamb dish (can't remember the name) had meat on the bone and was a bit oily but very good. Dal was good, very heavy on the cumin. Mixed vegetables, mostly potato, were good and spicy hot. Two huge oval naans come with full orders. These are your eating utensils (best to use only right hand, wash at the sink outside the kitchen before eating). Desserts are an extra dollar and are worth a try. Tea with milk used to be included but now costs another 0.75. I should mention that the place is not exactly spotless. The bathroom in particular could be a lot cleaner. If this sort of thing bothers you, maybe you wouldn't be happy at Baba's.

Baba's Place
223 W Hubbard
312-329-9499
always open

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Daavat, nestled up against the east side of Cabrini-Green, is roughly similar to Baba's although the food is displayed on a steam table, cafeteria style. Same zero decor. Well maybe not quite zero, Daavat actually has a single small picture of a mosque pinned to the wall. No menu, no prices posted but it's the same basic $6 for a generous plate with all the trimmings. I opted for the mutton with a taste of all the veggie dishes. Again, the meat was surprisingly good though the sauce was pretty oily but very tasty. The vegetables (including a potato dish, saag, and dal) were all quite good with the chana masala being exceptionally nice. A very large, fresh, hot naan came along (you can also get chapattis or rice; samosas and some other fried thing are also on display). An extra plate of onion, jalapenos, and limes is supplied if you ask. They had desserts, gulab jamun and some cake-thing, sitting there but I didn't try them. Tea is supplied on request (most customers wait until after the meal). Cans of evaporated milk and many sugar dispensers are at the end of the counter. A bunch of formica tables are in the middle of the long room and there are a couple of pool tables in the back.

Daavat
211 W Walton (may be a little tricky to find but if you turn west from Wells it's easy)
312-335-8185
closes at 2AM

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Zaiqa is a bit more restaurant-like than the others. Sure, it has a pack of taxis outside, the cigarette counter by the door, and a couple of pool tables. But it actually has some decoration and a rather pleasant funky atmosphere. The main room has maybe 10 old leatherette booths and a small steam table toward the back. There's even a menu of sorts on the wall but it has little relationship to what's available and much of it isn't in English. Just take a look, ask questions, and see what looks good. The full plate is--surprise!--$6 and small orders are $4. About 3 meat dishes and 4 veggie ones. Everything was very tasty though there weren't the standout dishes as at Baba's or Daavat. Halfway-decent strong tea with milk; sugar is on the table. They had a couple of desserts, including the ubiquitous gulab jamun soaking in syrup. I like the atmosphere quite a bit. It's an old room with some brick walls and old brass chandeliers and a weird gridwork on the ceiling decorated with colored light bulbs. It's connected to another room by a narrow hallway that has the bathrooms and a bank of pay phones. Two pool tables, always in use, and some pinball machines are over there. This might make a good choice for a first stop. If you don't like Zaiqa, my guess is that you'll like Baba's, Daavat, and Larosh even less.

Zaiqa
858 N Orleans
312-280-6807
always open

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Larosh is under the El on a dark block of Lake Street right next door to an establishment called the Leatherneck Bar (their logo includes a drawing of handcuffs). Above Larosh's door is a primitive hand-painted sign that I like a lot (I’m afraid this may be gone now). The basement room has some formica tables, some counter seats, a huge TV playing Indian movies on Zee TV, and a pool table. Tacky fake flowers decorate the walls and tables. There's a kitchen in back and a counter where you place your order. Same basic $6 for a full meal ($5 for a veg meal) but note that tea is not included. Unlike the other places it was almost deserted at 10PM on a weekday night. The guy at the counter was very friendly and helpful and seemed concerned that the mutton might be too spicy for me (it wasn't). Along with mutton came naan, rice, dal, salad, mango pickle, and raita. The mutton came in a thick, spicy, oily sauce but unfortunately the meat had a significant amount of bone (some in dangerously small shards) and gristle. Naan was stale and straight from the microwave. Ditto for the rice. Dal was pretty good, flavored with roasted cumin. Salad was some tired iceberg lettuce and onion slices. The pickle and raita were fine but standard. It turns out that the place now closes at 11 so I was one of the day's last customers. It used to be open much later but they lost their lease on the parking lot across the street. Because easy parking is essential to these businesses, I think Larosh may be suffering.

New Larosh Restaurant
209 W Lake St
312-263-9540
closes at 11PM

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