I initially fell in love with Indian food in London, where I discovered that a night of revelry could continue after the pubs closed at the ungodly early hour of 11pm by heading to an Indian restaurant with a liquor license. Knowing nothing about the cuisine but foolishly expressing a liking of spicy food, I encountered my first lamb vindaloo. I was in heaven with this phenomenally tasty and hot dish, though putting out the flames in my mouth with wine proved to make for a very interesting morning afterwards, which involved not one but eight emergency trips to the restroom...
Since that first experience, I have sought the best Indian food that Chicago has to offer. I've made many obligatory trips to Little India along Devon Avenue (west of Western Avenue), though I found the best to be at Hema's Kitchen in Lincoln Park on Clark, just north of Fullerton (the first location is found on Devon, though we have never been because their Lincoln Park location is much closer). Chef and owner Hema Potla herself is a rather jolly middle-aged Indian woman, originally from the City of Hyderabad located close to the heart of India, and she excels in the Indian culinary arts more so than any other around. She started her first restaurant on Oakley Avenue with her late husband, Sam Potla.
In addition to the superior quality of food, which we'll cover in a moment, Hema's also features an intimate, candle-lit atmosphere that holds up well compared to the much more posh options surrounding it, and is a nice departure from the brightly lit, 70s-era décor found at most Devon Avenue Indian houses. Hema's Kitchen is also more comfortable and not as elegantly elaborate—or pricey—as your upscale River North options.
Our Hema's Kitchen favorites:
- Fish Vindaloo – a wonderful combination of a somewhat heavy spicy sauce paired with a lighter meat (scrod) and also potatoes – I ordered the lamb for years but found it to be far heavier and greasier (there is also chicken and shrimp vindaloo); vindaloo dishes are traditionally served in the western Indian State of Goa and are based on a dish called Carne de Vinha d' Alhos brought from Portugal; vindaloo is made from just about every Indian spice and herb you can think of, making it the spiciest Indian dish you'll find on most menus (only the rarer Phall and Tindaloo or Bindaloo is hotter); however, instead of blow-the-top-of-your-head-off heat, vindaloo hits you more subtly but powerfully, requiring yours truly to use extra napkins applied to the forehead, sideburns and back of the neck throughout the meal, similar to that of the Blazin' wing sauce at nearby Buffalo Wild Wings
- Sag Paneer – excellent pairing of spinach (sag) and homemade white cheese (paneer); and this is from someone that detests (no exaggeration) cooked spinach by itself
- Tandoori Chicken – like with the delicate and pleasant spiciness of a chicken tikka masala, the smoky (not spicy) taste of tandoori chicken is due to the clay oven in which it is cooked along with its being marinated with yogurt, lemon juice, chili powder, ginger, and garlic; it's bright red appearance and unusual way in which the chicken is cut leads to added intrigue
- Haryali Chicken – a recent find that has a delectable brown gravy, made from ground cilantro, green pepper, yogurt, ginger, garlic, coconut, and curry leaves
- Shami roll – burrito-size appetizer that is a nice combination of minced lamb, lentil paste, onions, tomato, and green chutney wrapped in homemade wheat bread grilled with butter (paratha) or without butter (phulka)
- Garlic naan – Indian flatbread essential for enjoying any Indian meal; other options for you vampire lovers include plain, onion and Keema (filled with ground lamb)
- BYOB – a huge bonus especially since all entrees range between $10-14, and there is no bullshit corking fee; if you like wine, you'll find a decent selection at Lincoln Park Market, a grocery store one block to the north with mostly over-priced wines so stick with the specials on the end-cap
Hema's also features lamb, chicken, vegetable, shrimp Biryani – a type of dish brought to the sub-continent by Muslims from the Middle East that we are likely to try for the first time on our next visit.
You can't go wrong with any of the desserts: pistachio or mango Kulfi (frozen dessert made from milk, sugar, and cardamom), Gajar Halva (surprisingly delicious mixture of grated carrots slow cooked with milk, sugar, butter, cardamom, cashews and raisins), Gulab Jamun (milk, ricotta, butter and glazed with a sugar syrup), and Kheer (rice pudding sprinkled with nuts).
Not even Hema's Kitchen is perfect – our only complaints:
Hema's Kitchen gets packed on weekend nights and parking is very difficult to find in the area, so we recommend that you cab it over on weeknights. If you like Hema's Kitchen, you might also like the $11.95 lunch buffet at Indian Garden in Streeterville, and both Indian Garden (same name, different ownership) and Viceroy of India on Devon. For more information, check out the Hema's Kitchen website.
- Onion bajia – I'm picking on Hema's Kitchen here but the same is true for all Indian restaurants in the City of Chicago: none have been able to replicate the delicately fried onion that you will find at every curry house in the UK and Ireland; the heavily battered, deep fried version of onion slices cut too big at Hema's are borderline inedible, in my humble opinion…
- You are charged $2.99 for rice – because everyone I know has rice with their meal, shouldn't this be built into the price of each entrée like at Chinese restaurants? Fortunately, this is forgivable with the economic prices of the main courses
- No complimentary papadoms – I believe that any good Indian meal starts with this light flaky appetizer served with three sauces (mango chutney, red chili & mint) and this is not even listed on the appetizers at Hema's
- If you get stuck at the table opposite the front door, you will get a cold blast in winter; if it's packed and this is the only table, we recommend that you wait for another
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