He is a chef mostly by osmosis. Amjad Kahn, owner of Khan BBQ in West Rogers Park, helped his mom chop vegetables and toast spices on occasion, but mostly he just watched her cook in his childhood home in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
A few years later in the 1970s while working for as a mess hall cook for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, he whipped up approximations of her recipes from memory for friends at his apartment as a diversion from his job. In 1984, he immigrated to America, worked at restaurant near the now demolished Robert Taylor Homes making submarine sandwiches behind bulletproof glass. He traded in that job for a series of restaurant jobs on Chicago’s Indo-Pakistani corridor near Devon and Western avenues. He didn’t always cook, but like he had with his mother, he watched the cooks he worked with and absorbed their techniques.
Eventually, he rented a tiny restaurant of his own on Devon, just east of Western. It was a swelter of a place with bright red laminate bench seating that evoked a 1970s Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was poorly ventilated, always smoky, and in the summer, without air-conditioning, hellishly hot. I remember the first time I visited in March of 2006, Khan, who you’d recognize by his thick white Hemingway-esque beard and his everpresent plain baseball cap (never a logo), tried to wave me away, saying his food was too spicy.
And it’s true: Familiar with heavily-Americanized-pseudo-Indian cream and butter larded dishes, not smoky and spicy Pakistani staples, I had no idea what I was in for. But, then again, as a connoisseur of the American backyard barbecue, in many ways I was primed for Khan’s hardwood-smoked kababs and breads grilled in a tandoor, a clay oven used in Pakistani and Indian cooking. In fact, that first visit was one of the great meals of my life. Weeks later, a grease fire burned the restaurant down.
But, three months after the fire, in June of 2006, Khan opened up bigger and better in his current location at the corner of Devon and Western. The usual assortment of expatriate Pakistanis and Muslims breaking fast after sundown during Ramadan migrated to the new spot, but so did foodies and curious Chicagoans looking for what I consider the best Pakistani food in Chicago.
They come for the chicken boti ($10.99) a silver platter of charcoal-blistered juicy thighs and wings slathered in a mint-green chili yogurt sauce, and the sausage like skewers of ground lamb fired up with ginger and chili and garlic known as seekh kababs ($10.99). They stay for the karahi gosht ($11.99), or braised goat bathed in a gravy of ghee or clarified brown butter. They sop up any remaining juices with puffy pillows of naan ($2.49), made to order in the same wood-fired tandoors as the kababs. Even the most carnivorous love Khan’s creamy lentil daal ($5.99) or his fiery thick stew of chickpeas or chana masala ($5.99). Mom would be proud.
2401 W. Devon Ave. 773-274-8600
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.