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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

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An Open Letter to Hema Potla

Dear Hema,

You won't recognize my name, but I have eaten in your restaurant many, many times. Each and every experience has been so wonderful, I felt it only fitting to express my gratitude in writing.

First, I should admit that I do frequent several of the other Indian restaurants near you on Devon Avenue -- please don't be mad. Though I love gorging myself on the variety of buffets offered up and down the street, I find myself returning again and again to your heavenly kitchen.

And by "heavenly" I am simply referring to the food, Hema. The atmosphere is by no means worthy of such description, although I was ecstatic to discover on my last visit that you have expanded to the adjoining room. Congratulations! I expect your other regulars are just as excited about the new space as I am.

I realize this expansion is quite recent (within the last three weeks), and therefore you haven't had time to decorate the new room accordingly (which is why the scattered, mismatched tables stand lonesome under glaring fluorescent lights). Although my server assured me that the new room wasn't quite finished, I am doubtful about its artistic future given the interior decorating (or rather, complete lack thereof) in the old room. Hema, what is the deal with that? Your restaurant is -- I apologize for the harshness of this statement -- downright ugly; to say it doesn't have atmosphere would be an understatement -- in fact, it has negative atmosphere. A couple of pictures on the walls, a few clean tablecloths, or a bit of muted lighting could do wonders.

But I don't mean to complain. I have grown used to the comfortable shabbiness and besides, I know your regulars come for the food and not the décor. Speaking of food, Hema, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the most excellent meal my boyfriend and I had last Thursday. As usual, you really outdid yourself. It began with not one, but two of your appetizers. I absolutely cannot resist your vegetable samosas and order them every time I visit -- the blend of potatoes and peas tucked into a warm, flaky pocket has the perfect amount of kick. We also tried the spicy patties of ground lamb and lentils fried to a golden brown, and we almost preferred it to your samosas (I know, astounding, but true). And then I had my absolute favorite meal of yours -- the chicken mahkani. You must share the recipe with me -- the pieces of tandori chicken were so tender and the rich onion and tomato sauce was so spicy my eyes were tearing.

I am embarrassed to tell you that I am not very original when it comes to ordering food at your restaurant. I have gotten to the point where I crave your samosas and chicken mahkani so much, that I rarely order anything else -- I know, it sounds very boring, especially since you have so many tasty lamb and vegetarian dishes, but I am always happy with my choices. My boyfriend (reluctantly) let me try his dish -- spicy chunks of lamb with spinach -- and I found that to be fantastically flavorful as well.

But I'll stop gushing over the food, as I'm sure you hear people raving about it all day long. Before I end, however, I would also like to bring up a somewhat touchy subject. I have overheard a few complaints regarding the competency of your service. I'm not going to lie to you, Hema: eating in your restaurant is something of a process, and I usually allow a good hour and a half for lunch or dinner because I know how long it takes to be served. But I find the laid-back attention charming. My biggest annoyance when I go out to eat is feeling rushed my server. At your restaurant, I feel encouraged to linger long after the food has been devoured and the plates licked clean.

And so, Hema, I will refrain from taking up any more of your time. I just wanted to thank you for making some of the best Indian food around and selling it at a reasonable price (since everything on your menu is $7.99 and under). I'll see you soon.

Sincerely yours,
Kim Conte

P.S. While we were eating dinner last Thursday, your little grandson asked me repeatedly to please please please play baseball with him. I couldn't because I was in the middle of eating dinner and, well, I suck at sports. Please tell him I would love to play with him next time I come in, as long as no athletic activities are involved.

Hema's Kitchen is located at 6406 N. Oakley Ave. It is BYOB.

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Cinnamon / November 24, 2003 10:03 AM

Ah, Hema! How we love thee! Let us count the ways.
Andrew and I went in for the first time about 6 years ago and had an absolutely delightful time as she took our menus from us, asked if we liked specific ingredients and then came back with heaping plates of lovely goodness. I mentioned that one of the dishes was spicier than I normally ate and her face lit up and she brought me my first mango lassi. At the time her oldest grandson was just a few months old and she would stop by his carrier and give him kisses every time she passed. I can never remember the names of what I've eaten but I've never had anything that I disliked.

nnnikki / November 25, 2003 11:20 AM

kim, one woman's ugly is another woman's charming. for many years, i have loved hema's (yes, that's my nose in a horrible cutaway shot in her episode on check, please!), and am thrilled that she doesn't see fit to gild the place in shiny ganeeshas and pretentious birck-a-brack. When I'm there, I live, breathe, and dream in samosas, and my heart yearns for vindaloo. If shabby decor will keep out the Joneses and leave more tables for us, then by all means, hema, carry on!

(sadly, i now live in new york and can only salivate in longing.)

armaghetto / January 12, 2004 5:24 AM

I love Hema's food above any other Indian restaurant I've ever been to. Hema's is ALWAYS crowded for dinner (haven't been since the expansion). The groups of shivering people outside is testament to her supernatural cooking powers. She should be immortalized in a comic book as Samosa-Woman: Able to immobilize the mightiest super-heroes with one meal.

It's so incredibly delicious, I can almost overlook the fact that the place is so sparse and grungy that it gives me misgivings about it's cleanliness. I realize there's a grandmotherly feel that gives this place "charm", but man, my gramma would immediately bust out the vacuum and bleach if I brought her here. Keep in mind as I talk all this trash, that my stomach is totally a-grumble with longing.

So I'm completely with you, Kim. I love Hema and her food, but the actual dining experience is a monumental pain in the ass.


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