Still Smoking

Michael Nagrant / 07.27.06

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago

Chicken Boti at Khan BBQ

Khan BBQ was a smoky dingy cabbie joint, with cracked ceramic tile, red plastic bench seating bolted to the floor ala Kentucky Fried Chicken circa 1985, and no air conditioning. On a swampy summer day, with the clay tandoor ovens at full charcoal flame, the solitary rickety general-issue floor fan blew more hot air than a Chicago alderman and offered little relief. A year ago, when I first entered the restaurant, an old man with a prodigious white beard took one look, calculated me as a Devon Street day-tripper, nodded towards Hema’s Kitchen across the street, and said “our food is very spicy.”

I was undeterred. Like the White Sox with their roster of Grinder Rules, I’ve got my own rules which include axioms like:

“It’s alright for grown men to cry, but only after a great meal.”

“If a restaurant looks like hell, but smells like heaven, order up.”

And regarding ethnic eats: “If you’re the only white dude in the joint, you’re probably in the right place.”

Khan BBQ met all the requirements. The perfume of cumin and coriander from the tandoors, the puffy stacks of Naan bread, and the grilled glistening meat on nearby tables spoke the truth. Khan BBQ quickly became one of my favorite Devon Street haunts. Whenever I ate there, the smoke was so thick, they should’ve put a Surgeon General’s Warning on the door. Workers often propped open the back door of the kitchen just to ventilate the restaurant, and so it was no surprise that in April an exhaust fan caught fire and the place burned up. Before I had time to grieve, Khan BBQ reopened in mid-June, a couple of blocks west of the old digs.

The insurance settlement must have been good. The new restaurant has freshly painted salmon-hued walls, a stainless palace of an open kitchen, a crystal chandelier rimmed in gold that would be at home in the Taj Mahal, air conditioning and, finally, great ventilation. I feared the food at Khan was doomed. Sometimes the dingy patina of a place is also the source of flavor, and without the gritty romance of dirt, heat and smoke, would the grilled meats be the same?

Thankfully, the Chicken Boti, with flakes of char from the natural-wood-charcoal-fired tandoor and neon green streaks from crushed peppers, was as crispy and succulent as ever. The Seekh Kababs, skewered round cylinders of ground beef, onion and coriander, which at other places, suffer a dry crumbly fate due to the suffocating heat of the tandoor, were crunchy outside and moist inside. Karai Gosht, a thick brown curry of braised lamb shank was bathed in a rich Ghee, the traditional brown clarified butter used in Punjabi cuisine, while the Daal, a creamy concoction of spicy golden lentils oozed on the plate. The Naan, a blistered carmelized pillow of chewy interior and crunchy crust, proved the perfect vehicle to sop up every last morsel.

The fare is so good, that it’s amazing to think that when the owner Amjad Khan arrived in Chicago, he hadn’t cooked a day in his life. Khan, who came to the U.S. in 1984 from Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third largest city, first secured a job at Ali’s Submarines at State and 51st near the Robert Taylor Homes. Khan said, “We used to lock ourselves up behind bulletproof glass to start the work day.”

Over the next twelve years, he worked his way through a series of Indian and Pakistani restaurants near Devon, including Sultan’s Palace, and finally opened Khan BBQ in 1996. When I asked Khan, whose face is ringed with a thick Papa Hemingway salt-and-pepper beard, if he had a mentor, he chuckled and said, “No. I just watched other cooks where I worked, and tried to make the food taste like my mother’s.”

I suppose it’s no surprise. Some of the best chefs in the world are self-taught. Chefs who go their own way don’t have to ape or break bad habits. They like to challenge convention, often saying “If it isn’t broke, break it.” Thankfully, when Khan BBQ burned down, Amjad Khan only applied this philosophy to the décor, and the food remains the same.

Khan BBQ, 2401 West Devon, (773)274-8600.