Devon Avenue

Over on Devon Avenue there lies a stretch of the ancient and arcane that offers only riddles of itself to the outsider. It is a labyrinth packed along a straight line of asphalt, where the only solution is to wander until lost. Walking down an alley an elderly baker ushers me in to try some of his almond biscuits, still warm from the oven. Flashing signs at a chicken coop promise ritual slaughter in less than thirty minutes. Tea houses you’re not allowed into. This isn’t so much a neighborhood as an independent microstate within the city limits. A center of first wave immigration, it has played host to many communities over the years. Bernard tells of a Devon that was once lined with Kosher butcher shops and bakeries. Over the last few decades, the Jews have drifted further into the suburbs, their storefronts now occupied by Indians and, to a greater extent, Pakistanis. In a common effort to showcase their regional cuisine, they have put aside the bitter political and religious tensions which divide the two groups in their native lands. Everyone has a favorite place and I’m sure you can’t go wrong: Gareeb Nawaz, Khan BBQ, Uru Swati and so on.

Apart from the restaurants, Devon functions as the city’s Indopak commercial center:  Hajj travel agents, Bollywood movies, traditional clothing, money transfer, and of course grocery stores. Along with the mercados to the east in Rogers Park, these are some of the best in Chicagoland and attract people of taste from far and wide. Strolling down the avenue, it is impossible to resist the otherworldly charm of these markets. Spices line the walls, only a fraction of which are recognizable to the Western eye, to create a tremendous aroma that resurrects an old empire of flavors which stretched from northeast Africa through southern Asia and the Levant.

One of the real treasures of the neighborhood is the collection of high quality butcher shops. Because of the abundance of observant Muslims, they cater to Islamic dietary guidelines, denoted by the term Halal. On Devon, it is an appellation required of almost any store or restaurant—even the pizzerias and are Halal. In the mood for raw lamb, I found an excellent meat counter, perhaps the best, in Farm City.

Stepping inside was a headrush–strong odors of perfume first, and the clamor of a thousand voices. Turkish, Urdu, Farsi. Several large families huddle around the glass display, anxiously waiting their turn to buy their truckloads of meat. Lamb, goat, beef, chicken. Loud chops from the cleaver and the motoring grinder churn out serious weight.  Entire lambs are being weighed on metal hooks and sold.

And there I was looking to get maybe a half pound of ground lamb to make cig kofte or tartare. When I told them how much I wanted they laughed.  Don’t I have any children?  Now I was the one laughing. The minimum I could arrange for was two and a half pounds.  Fine. With that amount I could feast now and freeze some for later.  I bought a sword for kebabs, remembering how much I wanted Adana as well.  A week of lamb.

That evening I brought together east and west to create a classically French tartare. The recipe couldn’t be simpler—mix your raw lamb with mustard, olive oil, egg yolk, capers, onion and cornichons, to your taste.

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