The most diverse street in America? Find color, culture, connectedness on Devon Avenue


Griffin Jackson
Chicago Tribune

Wander westward on Devon Avenue from about Damen Avenue to California Avenue and you just might forget you’re in Chicago. The area, popularly known as “Little India,” is home to a vivid mix of cultural influences and establishments.

Restaurants featuring fare from around the world give this quadrant of the West Ridge neighborhood plenty of culinary flair. Visitors walking east or west from the intersection of Western Avenue and Devon will pass sweet shops, bookstores, grocers and clothiers, and find themselves serenaded by a dozen languages within only a few blocks.

You may have heard Devon is the most diverse street in America. True or not, this stretch has something for everyone — and seemingly, someone from everywhere.

Sink your teeth into this: It’s known to many as “Little India,” but Pakistani establishments also abound in this area. One of the best is Sabri Nihari (2502 W. Devon Ave.), which has been around for more than two decades and made Michelin’s 2018 Bib Gourmand list. On a recent weeknight during Ramadan, the spacious, family-style restaurant with elegant light fixtures and warm colors wasn’t bustling until sundown, when lines started stretching out the front door.

Before getting into the entrees, the plump, from-scratch samosas prove perfectly flaky with just the right amount of spice. But save room — the restaurant’s namesake dish is a hit.

“Nine out of 10 tables will get that dish,” says the general manager, Mohammed Junaid. “It’s a beef stew, slow-cooked for a good six to eight hours for the meat to be really, really tender. The meat is so tender you don’t even have to chew.”

The frontier chicken is also popular. “It’s boneless pieces of chicken, made on the flat top with onions, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, cilantro, tomatoes, special spices and herbs,” Junaid describes. “Add a little garlic or chicken naan.”

Naan is Indian flatbread. What’s chicken naan, you ask?

“We put minced chicken in the naan, and we cook that in the clay oven,” says Junaid.

Location for libations: Pete Valavanis knows a little something about longevity. His bar, Cary’s Lounge (2251 W. Devon Ave.), has been around since the ’70s.

“My parents bought the bar in 1972,” he says. “I kind of grew up there.”

After his father passed away, Valavanis decided to take over. “I really like the people and that made it an easy choice. Over time, you kind of make it your own.”

Step inside and you immediately see some of what he means. There’s an impressive collection of masks on the wall opposite the bar. There’s a pool table. And the bathrooms feature lively, comics-style murals based on the bar and the neighborhood, commissioned from a friend and former regular.

“It’s gotta be cozy. I want it to feel like a neighborhood bar, like anyone can walk in,” says Valavanis. “But there’s no reason a neighborhood bar can’t have great cocktails.”

No reason, indeed. The cocktail menu is spare — five or six drinks — and it changes, though “the bartenders can make whatever you want.” The most popular cocktails these days are the Thai Basil Blueberry Mule — featuring a hit of blueberry vodka, lime juice, Thai basil and some fresh ginger — and the super-chill, super-simple Lavender Collins, a twist on the classic Tom Collins.

The Stormy Daniels might catch your attention, if not with the name, then with the blend of El Dorado rum, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, lime, ginger and ginger beer. “That’s a really good cocktail,” says Valavanis, who personally is a big fan of sazeracs like the secret-recipe Rev’s Special.

At Cary’s, just sit back and enjoy a drink on the patio or in the bar; maybe stop in for a pop-up art show or simply to say hello. It’s got that neighborhood-y, odd-but-familiar feel. Says Valavanis, “It’s gotta feel like home. A little bit provocative, a little on the absurd side.”

Culture vulture: Walking around the area, you’ll pass numerous window displays with mannequins dressed smartly in colorful saris, sharp kurtas and striking jewelry. One shop, J. Junaid Jamshed (2351 W. Devon Ave.) really pops. The global clothing boutique was founded by and named after a Pakistani pop star and TV personality.

It’s one of six locations in the United States, and one of about 120 worldwide, but everything comes out of Pakistan, says Fahad Syed, the store manager. The primary audience is immigrants from places like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of Africa.

“When they come in, they love it,” says Syed. “The people who are here for a long time, they tell us that they get the feel, the vibe, they felt when they were back home. The idea is to bring the same tastes, the same vibe here, so they can feel at home.”

Westerners will stop in as well, looking to try out a kurta or traditional Peshawari chappals (sandals).

“It’s a mixture of western and eastern together,” says Syed. “Everything is under one roof for the whole family.”

Walking down the aisles of the shop, don’t be surprised if you feel a strong urge to touch the fabrics and eye the unique patterns and warm color palettes, which change seasonally.

“The summer in general is crowded,” Syed says. “But Ramadan is something. Everybody comes here. People come from different cities and states. This place is always busy.”

A local you should know: A lot of people don’t know about the work of their local special service area. Irshad Khan, who works in property management and grew up in the neighborhood, is the chair of the SSA operating around the Devon and Western intersection.

“Our objective is to beautify Devon,” says Khan. “We try to keep Devon alive and thriving.”

SSAs receive funding from local property taxes to implement a variety of projects meant to maintain, build up and enhance their neighborhoods. Sometimes this looks like simple public maintenance; other times it looks like special events and development initiatives.

A big part of Khan’s work on the SSA is helping the area flourish and keeping it “iconic.” His team can offer financial assistance with security cameras for businesses and facade updates.

Khan’s SSA offers its services through the Rogers Park Business Alliance and recently teamed up with the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce to put on a movie night.

Having lived in the neighborhood his whole life — his father started several businesses on Devon — Khan has seen it evolve. “Devon is an iconic site where people come because of the culture, the restaurants, the food, the clothes,” he says.

Khan says some of the busiest, liveliest nights on Devon are during the parades for India and Pakistan’s independence days, both in August, along with other multicultural festivals, and the night before Ramadan ends. “It’s like the Fourth of July,” he says. Along with helping put on cultural events, the SSA is planning an August restaurant crawl.

Khan wants others to experience all the neighborhood has to offer: “I would suggest you come out and go for a crawl with us.”

Cost of living: Over the last six months, apartments in the area have been renting for a little shy of $1,450 per month. That’s according to an analysis done by Christina Ezzo, a 22-year veteran real estate broker with Re/Max. She surveyed the area south of Pratt Boulevard, north of Peterson Avenue, west of Ridge Boulevard, and east of California Avenue.

In the same period, condos in the neighborhood have sold for an average of about $160,000 and single-family homes come in at $380,000.

What does Ezzo think draws people to the neighborhood?

The area, Ezzo says, is fun and accessible. “You can just walk right down the street and find your favorite stores and restaurants.”

There is public transit aplenty — buses are constantly moving through the intersection — and houses of worship and neighborhood amenities keep people connected to the area, she says.

Market watch: Property values are on the upswing, Ezzo says. Typical market time for an apartment is 57 days. “Since 2008, there’s been a steady rise in the neighborhood.”

“The two-flats are expensive again,” she says. “They’re just getting up there. When two-flats start to get above four (hundred thousand dollars), you know the neighborhood is back.”

As for parking, it can get hectic closer to the main thoroughfares, but it’s not bad on the interior streets.

“A long time ago, it was always very congested,” says Ezzo. “I love driving down Devon now. It’s just so much to see. My eyes just have so much eye candy.”

Making the grade: Boone Elementary School (6710 N. Washtenaw Ave.), GreatSchools rating 6 out of 10.

West Ridge Elementary School (6700 N. Whipple St.), GreatSchools rating 8 out of 10.

DeWitt Clinton Elementary School (6110 N. Fairfield Ave.), GreatSchools rating 6 out of 10.

Griffin Jackson is a freelance writer.


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