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Friday, July 19

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First you have to get there.

If you drive, I can't help you much; from the southeast, probably you'll need to take Lake Shore Drive North till it ends at Hollywood, and then maneuver your way west and north until you hit Devon. And then sit in Devon's typically stop-and-go traffic until you find the place. (In spite of the traffic, parking isn't usually too tough.)

But if you're on foot, it's an adventure. You could take the Red Line to Loyola and then join the long, multicultural queue awaiting the Devon bus. Or from the West Side, you might take the Western bus north. On the Devon bus, you repeatedly watch the street change from bustling to desolate to bustling. As you approach the vicinity of the descriptively named Afghan Restaurant, you're in Little India — definitely a bustling part, full of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, electronics shops, sari stores, ethnic groceries, travel agencies and sweets emporia. You see some Arabic in this area, too. A little further west, and there is a change of ethnicity: some Kosher places, a couple of Russian shops — in this transitional area, Afghan Restaurant sits.

It is an appropriate location for a restaurant that serves the cuisine of a country surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, China and three different former Soviet republics. The cuisine, too, is a reflection of Afghanistan's geographical boundaries: a recognizable amalgam of some of the world's tastiest food traditions — namely, Persian, Chinese, Indian and Russian.

Afghan Restaurant is an unprepossessing place. Light on the décor, with plastic covering the tables. But — especially in Chicago — you don't want to judge a restaurant by its décor. You want to sit down and order. And taste.

For example, take our appetizer. Bolani (spelled boulanee elsewhere) is like Indian stuffed paratha, but not whole wheat. At Afghan Restaurant, the plate includes two half-moons of bread stuffed with different fillings, served warm and crisp, with a very sour yogurt sauce for dipping. The potato filling was a bit bland, but the spinach-green onion stuffing was fabulous. Indeed, according to my Afghan cookbook, these pastries are usually leek-filled.

At Afghan Restaurant, entrees come with a basket of bread (a thick, chewy white bread, served warm) with very hot and spicy chutney for dipping, a small iceberg-lettuce-based mixed salad, a bowl of delicious soup (vegetable or lentil — both are very good, but the lentil is better) and abundant (and splendid) Middle-Eastern-style rice pilaf.

One of our entrees was sabzi chalow, a mildly spiced, slightly soupy stew of spinach, lamb, and potatoes — mostly spinach — served with rice. The lamb was wonderfully tender and a little fatty and the potatoes were a nice, if unusual, addition.

We also ordered the kabob combo. This included chicken, lamb, and keema (spiced ground beef). The chicken was a little dry, but tasted great dipped in the very spicy chutney provided with the bread. The keema and lamb morsels were very tender and well flavored.

Our meal was enormous, delicious and cheap (entrees were $11.95 and $7.95). We were full about halfway through, but could not stop eating. The atmosphere is definitely no-frills (it's probably not a place to take a date you want to impress, unless what impresses him is good food), but friendly and authentic.

If you are still hungry after finishing dinner — unlikely, but I suppose it's possible — check out the Argo Georgian Bakery a couple of doors east. Argo bakes wonderful Georgian bread — beautiful flat round loaves — and extremely tasty stuffed pastries. Some of them are savory, with meat, cheese, potato and other vegetable fillings; and others are sweet, filled with apples, sweet cheese, cherries and so on. They are uniformly delicious, ridiculously cheap and — in case you really can't manage to eat another bite — reheat beautifully.

Afghan Restaurant, 2818 W. Devon Ave. 773-262-8000
Open daily, 11:30am to 10pm, except Friday and Saturday, open till 11pm. According to the takeout menu, if you're lucky enough to live within three miles of the place, they deliver.

Argo Georgian Bakery, 2812 W. Devon Ave. 773-764-6322

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is written by various members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Deb Oestreicher.

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