Sky Full of Bacon


Taxi! Adventures In Cabbie Joints

The debut of a new blog a few months back devoted to what cabbies eat reminded me to pay more attention to this subgenre, which is truly the cutting edge of the immigrant experience in Chicago, places least devoted to serving any clientele other than the most recent immigrant from the third world, and thus offering, in a very gritty way, as direct a reflection of other cuisines at home as you are likely to find. This is not a new observation, of course; there were 24-hour Pakistani joints on the 24-Hour-A-Thon nearly a decade ago, which was one of the key bonding events of the earliest Chowhound posters becoming ultimately LTHForum. (I didn’t go on it, but I read Monica Eng’s account in the Tribune avidly.) Here are three I’ve been to recently, all worth a stop for at least something.

The sort of undefined slice of west Edgewater and Rogers Park between Clark and Ravenswood is a definite cabbie haunt and, not coincidentally, probably the city’s main concentration of African food. Barwaqo Kabob is an East African spot on an obscure stretch of Ridge, hidden back by Ravenswood cemetery, and it will serve to introduce several of the giveaway signs of a cabbie hangout, including 1) TV tuned to popular native channels (which means an Indian one for South Asians, and Al-Jazeera for the middle east and Africa), 2) communal seating (no one thinks anything of sitting right down in the bubble of personal space Westerners tend to expect exists around them), and 3) a menu whose existence is basically theoretical; what you get is basically whatever you see cooking behind the cash register. Which means, in fact, that there were no kabobs that day at Barwaqo Kabob. What I got instead was a plate of chicken and rice:

This was kind of bland in a mildly spiced, slightly tomatoey way, and, frankly, the vegetables and the chicken had a kind of industrial cast to them, as if they came from a large bag at Costco. What saved this was some sort of dark, bitter sauce served on the side, sour with tamarind. I don’t know that it was supposed to go with the chicken, but I used it that way, and it made it far more interesting. What really saved my trip to Barwaqo was the free soup that came with it:

I don’t know what it was exactly— mashed lentils would be my best bet, but I’m open to other suggestions— but it was powerfully garlicky, and full of deep stewed flavor. It was great; it’s worth ordering randomly among the entrees, just to get this soup. Barwaqo definitely deserves more exploration (and there has been some in this LTHForum thread).

Barwaqo Kabob
6130 N Ravenswood
Chicago, IL 60660

When Kennyz said there had been a 24-hour Kyrgyzstani place called Bai Cafe in a storefront in my neighborhood for the past nine months, on a stretch I frequently walk by (or at least I though I did), I found it hard to believe him— but I eventually found the city inspection records and he’s right. My only extenuating circumstance is that apparently it only put up a sign in the last month or so, and even now could easily be mistaken for a place that’s going to open soon, and hasn’t moved much of anything into the space yet.

But David Hammond and I popped in there late one night when most other options were unavailable and had a meal that was plain and perhaps best described with the word “sturdy,” yet had one stellar component— besides the warmth of the welcome. There were two employees at work at 10 pm— one a Chinese-looking man, the other a round little Eastern European-looking woman patting out balls of something. (To be honest, I’m not sure which of them was more likely to be Kyrgyzstani, if either.) After we looked, a bit hopelessly, at the menu written in impenetrable Kyrgyzanglish (stuffed into a plastic holder which, bizarrely, had some copies of papers from the City stuffed into it, the Asian-looking guy waved us into the kitchen and showed us what was on the stove— a soup, a stew of chicken wings and corkscrew pasta, some fried ovoid balls about which the little round woman beamed and said “pieroshki— you like?”

We said we liked all of it and the guy, rather than try to calculate an actual price, said “I give you some of everything and two pieroshki.” We said one pieroshki was probably fine, and sat down to wait.

The soup (below) wasn’t bad. A simple beef broth, with handcut noodles in it, it was easy enough to like if not something that will stay with me as the Barwaqo soup did. The chicken wing pasta— well, it was like something you might eat at home. Not my home, the home of someone who doesn’t cook as well as me, and doesn’t know how much to season stuff. Nothing offensive about it, but very plain, and the only thing to dress it up with at the table was sriracha, which seemed really incongruous with something kind of goulashy like that.

But the pieroshki— they were fantastic. I expected a dense ball, sort of like a samosa minus the seasoning, but in fact they were as light and fluffy as a beignet. We ate our one, then kind of looked at each other— and decided maybe we’d better have that second one after all. Which we did.

Bai Cafe
3406 N Ashland Ave,
Chicago, IL.
(773) 687-8091

Tabaq is a Pakistani (probably) place near the beginning of Clybourn, in the no-man’s-land before you start reaching things like the Apple Store, and nearly as white and tidy as that establishment. As I walked in I got a serious stinkeye from an imam-looking guy in a floor-length garment, to which I responded with a look of bluff German-American heartiness, but the actual proprietor couldn’t have been more welcoming and was happy to put together a plate out of the things lined up as a sort of buffet behind the counter. They had chicken tikka, fried tilapia and another kind of fish, nihari, and a couple of vegetables; I tried to suggest vegetables, but wound up with two meats and a plate of lentils over white (not basmati) rice, along with some salad/garnish type vegetables and a small bowl of very thin coriander sauce.

The tikka was very good; the lentils were good, though the bland rice sucked flavor from them and I tried to eat them off the top of it; the fish had a nice spice but muddy flavor (catfish maybe). Unlike my other two cabbie meals, this one was of a cuisine which I actually have experience with, so I can say that it wasn’t the best of its kind I’ve had, but it was pretty decent, and I’d go back to check out more things, and especially to push to try some of the vegetable dishes which included some things I hadn’t seen before.

Tabaq Restaurant
1245 North Clybourn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60610-6655
(312) 944-1245

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3 Responses to “Taxi! Adventures In Cabbie Joints”

  1. Kenny Z Says:

    Bai is himself from Kyrgyzstan, and if you told me he was Chinese I’d have no trouble believing it. The 10 or so patrons in there when I ate also looked like they could be Chinese, and he told me that they too were part of Chicago’s growing (per his claim) Kyrgyzstani population. I went a second time and met a woman who could have passed for someone from Eastern Europe, and she said she was Turkish and married to a Turkish guy who is a partner in the venture. Bai used to be a cook at another cabbie joint – that Turkish hole in the wall right under the El Tracks at Irving and Ravenswood, a couple of doors west of Cafe 28. I stopped in there a couple of times, but nothing about the place enticed me to want to try the food.

  2. Todd Lemmon Says:

    I pioneered at BaBa’s Place on Hubbard and Franklin back in “95-“96. Delicious “Frontier Chicken” and other exotic delights. It had a “squatty potty” system in the bathroom which was pretty scary and unfamiliar. But the food was great. Goat every Friday! Always packed with cabbies.

  3. Matthew Says:

    My best friend was actually in Kyrgyzstan with the Peace Corps, and they’re all of Chinese descent (or maybe Mongolian). Your first mistake, though, was going to a Kyrgyz restaurant at all. His descriptions of food consisted mainly of sheep boiled in vats with a little salt and oily noodles. I’m not talking lamb, or a leg of mutton. The whole sheep. Their national dish is besh barmak. Maybe that’s what they were going for with the soup? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing you could have very well experienced the height of Kyrgyz cuisine.

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