Spicy Smackdown

Michael Nagrant / 02.23.09

With all the truth-seeking, moneyed, mid-life-crisis-experiencing entrepreneurs “climbing” Mt. Everest, it’s surprising there hasn’t been a nationwide boom in Nepalese cuisine. After all, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the counter-culture got tired of smoking peyote and mainlining Mexican mezcal, they returned to the States bearing larded beans, chimichangas and burritos as big as your head. But, while young reformed hippies needed to build a life and make some money, flush hedge-fund managers don’t quite need sidelines beyond month-long sojourns to the Turks and Caicos or weekend benders at Maybach dealerships. And so our nation suffers a culinary debt.

And as the nation goes, so does Chicago, or at least the South Loop. Despite the confluence of affluence gathering in newly sprung high-rise condos off of South Michigan Avenue, or the density of cultured denizens living in former printing warehouses off Dearborn, the South Loop has been one of Chicago’s stalwart ethnic-food deserts. But, in the last month, with the addition of the Indian and Nepalese-skewing Chicago Curry House and the McDonald’s-meets-the-Maharaja, fast-food-slinging Indian diner, Chutney Joes, it’s now ground zero for all things sambar and spice.

Curry House is a faux-minaret-laden dining room located in a rusty brick low-rise storefront in Chicago’s Dearborn Park. If you’re going, don’t forget your CTA card. Due to the ultra-xenophobic neighborhood parking zoning strategy, it’s impossible to find a place to stash your car. Of course a little CTA hustle and a long walk will serve you well. While Nepalese cuisine isn’t that different from traditional Pakistani or Indian fare, it features more restorative carb and protein-laden goodies to speed your return journey.

One of the best dishes to sate your sleepy inner Sherpa is Aloo Tama Bodi, a porridge-like affair filled with toothsome black-eyed peas, creamy potatoes and spicy, snappy bamboo shoots that might be the recipe love child from a soul-food-slinging momma and Ming Tsai. For the meat-inclined, Khasi Ko Maasu, or denture-friendly chunks of soft goat dripping in brown cinnamon and black-pepper-spiced gravy, is a clean alternative to Indian-style, greasy, ghee-laden curries. And while the menu card above the buffet here says the Gajar Ka Halwa, or sweet grated carrots simmered gently in milk, are generously sprinkled with “buts,” there were no conjunctions to be found anywhere in this spectacular sweet dish, only a crunchy green pistachio dust.

While a good restorative, Nepalese cuisine isn’t particularly spicy. But, fear not, if your tongue yearns to burn, there are plenty of classic hot Indian dishes here to sate you. In fact, Curry House joins India House on Grand as one of the only Indian restaurants south of the Devon street line to offer somewhat authentic chili heat. While it’s not quite as good as India House, for Loop Indian eats, Curry House is a close second, marred mostly by mushy samosa, over-fried pakora and relatively bland butter chicken.

Besides the burnt sienna, umber and saffron paint scheme, the samosa, featuring flaky baked pastry stuffed with turgid flavor-bursting peas and fiery potatoes, is really one of the few enticing things about Chutney Joes. The setup here is that you get a couple of pieces of naan, or rice, and your choice of two steam-table slop-style slow-cooked meat or vegetarian entrees for $7.99. As such, Chutney Joes’ bills itself as the Indian Panda Express. But, while Panda Express is the house built on the sticky sweet siren call of neon-hued orange chicken, Chutney Joes’ has no comparable stand-out.

Chicken tikka masala and spinach paneer are both undersalted and spiced at a toddler-pleasing level. The integrity of the seemingly freshly wilted spinach was a nice change from the usual mush, though. The closest choice for a cornerstone dish is probably pork vindaloo. Despite the dry overcooked cubes of pig in the dish, the ginger-, cinnamon- and cardamom-perfumed sauce pleasantly perks the nose and tickles the tongue.

Chutney Joes, with its seemingly cheap menu, quick service, architecturally interesting terraced wood-ceiling panels and soothing Muzak selection of spacey techno and mod desi beats, seems poised to franchise. But given the choice, if you’re in this part of town, you’re much better off with the wider selection and well-cooked $10.99 lunch buffet down the street at Curry House. Unless someone tweaks the recipes and works on the quality control at Chutney Joes, McDonald’s has nothing to worry about, for it’ll be a very long time before the phrase “Would you like samosas with that?” becomes part of the vernacular.

Chutney Joes, 511 South State, (312)341-9755; Curry House 899 South Plymouth Court, (312)362-9999.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity.