— ina pinkney (@breakfastqueen1) June 20, 2013
I’ve received many kind words since the first Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast went up last Friday, though I think my favorite so far is above. The post below ought to be saved to around the time of the next one in a few weeks (I think, haven’t really decided)— but I’m not going to wait, because the discovery of the place it involves goes to the heart of what this is all about. So I’d love to encourage a few people to surprise the owners of this place with some business this weekend, and enjoy it as much as I did.
Here’s the story: the next podcast will include an interview with former Time Out Chicago reviewer and, ultimately briefly, food editor Julia Kramer, who moves to New York this weekend to start a new job with Bon Appetit. I wanted to do it over food and somewhere more interesting than my house, so I asked Julia for a suggestion of a restaurant and she came up with one called Chill Cafe, a Central Asian restaurant at 2949 W. Belmont suggested to her by Abe Conlon of Fat Rice (which is exactly a half mile south). I said why not, and went over there to scope it out for recording and get their permission to do so. When I got there I realized I had noticed the space a few times, but since the words “Chill Cafe” or any other clue of ethnicity appear nowhere on the exterior (or interior, for that matter), it’s not surprising that no one has figured out from this that there’s a Central Asian restaurant inside:
Yeah, you could drive by that and have no idea there was even a functioning business there… and I’m pretty sure I have, vaguely noticed the signage, and never investigated further. So I went to talk to them and, doing my best to explain the concept of “podcast” to the husband-owner, Ilkhom, won them over to the idea of letting us record there and interview them. Here’s Ilkhom and his wife Sultana with today’s specials behind them (and in front of them):
There is an English menu. Anyway, what’s in front of them is samsa, cheese and meat pies in a flaky crust:
and also, a stack of hachapuri, which are like naan filled with sour cream and green onion:
The owners are Russian but ethnic Turks, and draw a crowd— well, crowd might be overstating things at lunch that day— from all over, by which they mean Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan…. Then I asked the important question: you make all this here? At this point I was introduced to Tamina and her assistant Iko:
and Tamina, seeing that attention that I was paying to her samsas, rushed out her real pride and joy, a many-layered cake with sour cream frosting:
So all of this and more is made in-house, from scratch, from real ingredients. I don’t know when they get the business to finish off a cake like this every day or even every other day, but they’re making all this stuff the good way, not a premade ingredient off the Sysco truck in sight. Here’s more (as we recorded they brought us way too much food):
A sample platter overflowing with a lamb and rice dish, more dumplings (manti), a lamb skewer, rice, bulgur wheat, who knows what all.
And it was all really good. You might see dishes that look much like these in a Polish or Serbian restaurant, say. But they’d be kind of bland and underseasoned by our standards. Here, though, we’re close enough to Turkey, the middle east, even India that there was enough spice in this to make them more than just gray meat and starches. The soup gave off a whiff of curry as soon as it was set down. The lamb skewer would have passed as kifta kabob in any middle-eastern restaurant. The rice with the lamb tasted of tomato and something or other. The potato salad reminded me of the artful little salads on the sandwiches at Duran European Sandwiches. Everything was artful and skillfully made far beyond the expectations of a native Central Asian cafe— of which we have a good number these days, Jibek Jolu, Bai Cafe, Lazzat, Bereke, etc.; but this is easily the one that I would go back to first. It’s a real gem hiding behind a storefront opaque enough to be a secret agent’s cover. Your mission: check it out soon.
2949 W Belmont Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
And then watch for the upcoming podcast in which Chill Cafe will be featured… along with Julia Kramer.Tags: central asian, chill cafe, russian, turkish