Sometimes, curiosity gets the best of me. It’s one of the hazards of my job, driving around the city, rubber-necked, looking at interesting awnings and neon signs that beckon from beyond the sidewalk. What is it that makes someone pull over, pay the meter and walk into an unfamiliar space? Unless you’re going based on someone’s word, your chances for success are slim. But isn’t that what makes the adventure so much fun? For years, I’ve driven down Orleans, on the city’s Near North Side, every now and then, stopping in to places like Big & Little’s or Bad Happy Poutine. The blocks between Chicago Ave. and Division are a literal Cabbie Corridor, with a few restaurants always commanding the bulk of the driver’s attention. On a recent lunch hour, I finally ventured into Pakeeza, which has one of the saddest façades along the strip, but maintains one of the busiest kitchens along Orleans.
All day long, men (and I mean 100% men), some with long beards, others in bulky winter coats, speak rapid-fire to one another, bitching about Uber and occasionally playing pool at the communal table, but more likely tucking into fiery goat biryani and frontier chicken. “You can find biryani all over South Asia,” says owner Riyaz Muhammad. “But the Pakistanis like it spicier and with more flavor than the Indians.”
By that he means in addition to the usual litany of cardamom, coriander powder and cumin, the Pakistani cook will add pronounced flavors of black and green cardamom, plus ground sticks of cinnamon with pulverized cumin seeds, cloves and whole black peppercorns. The secret weapon – revealed only after a bit of prodding – is dried plum. This spicy, savory haystack of basmati rice hides generous hunks of slow-simmered goat that’s bathed in a light gravy (not a curry, clarifies Muhammad). The dish is addictive, and as I spoon over my cooling raita (yogurt with bits of cilantro and mint), I’m pulled over to the second dish that has grabbed my attention: Frontier Chicken.
Originally from the northern, mountainous regions of Pakistan, this grilled chicken dish would typically have bones in it, but Muhammad says U.S. customers – even though many of them are ex-pats – demand boneless. The pieces are marinated overnight in saffron, vinegar, fresh lemon juice and red peppers, and are then grilled to-order, along with fresh onions and jalapeños. “If they ask for ginger, we will include some fresh ginger in there as well,” says Muhammad.
By now, I’m tearing into the puffy-crispy whole wheat naan, scooping up chicken, dipping it into raita and shoveling in the mashed yellow lentils. The feast before me costs a fraction of what I’d be spending just a few blocks away, and it’s then that I realize just how fortunate we are as diners in Chicago; who needs to schlep all the way up to Devon Avenue? There’s plenty of home-cooking right here, along North Orleans.
1011 N. Orleans; (312) 266-7936