I often joke about the suburbs lacking good ethnic restaurants. You can always find a Bennigan’s, Chili’s, TGIFriday, Max and Erma’s, Burger King, White Castles, and Fudruckers. I guess it takes you having the room spin on you after feasting at one of those delightful eateries to make you develop a low opinion of their fare. Then again, you do have to go outside of your comfort of big city living and get a taste of the suburbs — provided the room does not spin on you and the words on paper in front of you don’t start swirling. So, what did my friend and a few others decide to do? We ventured out to Buffalo Grove, Illinois for some Uzbekistan food. Located at 19 E. Dundee Road in a small strip establishment, we congregated at Chaihanna to break bread, Eastern European style.
Chaihanna is truly authentic Uzbekistan fare. The patrons were all representative of the land. The kitchen staff were all from Uzbekistan or at least a generation removed — unlike all Mexican as you find in well over 90% of the ethnic restaurants in Chicago. We have comical memories of how silent the restaurant became when we walked in, a motley crew comprised of a Polish guy, a Jewish guy, a bi-racial Amish woman, and a West Indian guy. How is that for racial harmony? If the Verizon guy were there, the person on the other end of the line would not have heard him due to his silence. Hahahahaha. But back to the reason for this diary. We received a warm welcome from the host and a table to accommodate all that we had planned to order.
In our usual manner of ordering, we decided that we would sample our fair share of appetizers, entrées, and desserts. [Plus we had to put a menu aside for our personal collection.] For appetizers, we were rather daring. We started out with picked watermelon. Now, I have always been a huge watermelon lover. As a matter of fact, any kind of melon ranging from cantaloupe to honeydew melon have been favourites of mine. But pickled watermelon was something all together different. Surprisingly, no one cringed, winced, or acted a nut while biting into the delicacy — not that we would make it a staple in our diets. This is the first time that I will admit that we had something totally different, in an out-of-the-box way of speaking, but it was not bad either. The next appetizer that we had was the sour spinach soup. Oh was this delicious. Served up with a dollop of sour cream, this was a highlight well worth bottling. Not the least bit sour, it was slightly spicy without being overtly noticeable. I could go for a bowl of that soup at this very moment. Next up was the hunon, which was a roll of dough with meat. The kicker here was that we didn’t know exactly what the meat was. Was it chicken? Was it beef? Was it pork? Was it fish? Was it Puppy Chow? Was it a pesky neighbour who had met his or her fate at the end of a rolling pin? What we do know is that whatever the meat was then — we found out from the waiter later that it was ground lamb — it sure did taste good in that pastry filling. The cheburiki, which were steamed dumplings with lamb, was the final appetizer that we sampled. This was great winter food and we downed it all accordingly. Pickled watermelon aside, we did a good job of picking the appetizers although we decided to order menu items without asking questions or paying attention to the English descriptions.
When it came time for the entrées, we decided to play it safe after watching the other patrons’ spooning food from large platters. And because we ordered everything family-style, we were not going to pile up individual plates that we would have eventually had to have prepared for take-out. We order a a damlama, which was meat — there goes that meat thing again — with vegetables. This dish of rolled lamb was perhaps the mildest dish we had while dining at Chaihanna. Had there not been enough spices added to the lamb, it would have been absolutely bland to the palate. The balance to the damlama was the dish of rabbit. Perhaps Bugs Bunny should have made the left at Albuquerque because he ended up on our plate for dinner. We laughed at the fact that we initially thought that the dish was chicken under brown rice. After all, everything tastes “just like chicken” to some people. One thing that I must add is that the rabbit was incredibly tender to the point where it was falling apart when we stuck our forks into it. Sorry, Bugs, but we were hungry and the brown rice made it that much better. Ain’t I a stinka?
We usually opt for a minimum of four entrées, but we made a wise decision to order two and then see if there was enough room to fit in another or two. The platters of damlama and rabbit were large and the food was piled high. Instead of trying to stuff ourselves to capacity, we held off for dessert. Here is where we went from conservative to liberal. The chocolate cake was our conservative dessert. Although not mass produced and pulled from a shelf after having a shelf life of a few days, this was a rather dense chocolate cake and to the point where given one more day it would have been dry. It was all uphill from that dessert item. The next one to cater to our fancy was the chak-chak, which one could describe as ribbons of fried funnel cake dough pressed into a pan, doused in honey, and cut into squares. I don’t want another rice crispy treat ever after sinking my pretty white teeth into this dream. The Napoleon dessert, having it’s origins in France, was rich and dreamy. Sorry, but I had to go high-end magazine food critic with that description. Having had Napoleons that were so sweet that my gums throbbed and I desperately needed Ritalin to bring me down from my sugar rush, Chaihanna did it right. The spiral beignets were also right on. They weren’t the kind of beignets that you get in New Orleans — those are one of a kind, especially after digesting a huge bowl of gumbo. To ease all of this good food going down, we ordered a round of spiced tea that really put a smile on our faces. Or perhaps it was all the food we had eaten.
Chaihanna was a rather nice experience. With us having become so accustomed to dining at restaurants that have quite a bit of exotic spices to the dishes, barring the exception of a few of our outings, we were expecting a little bit more. The service, while extremely courteous and welcoming, was slow. Then again, this may have been because the food did not go into a microwave after the waiter took our orders to the kitchen. Another thing to note is that the price was nice, very nice indeed. Chaihanna did grow on us and it took a few hours for us to warm up to it. Was the trip worth it? Yes. Did we really enjoy the food? Yes. Would we recommend it to others? Well, if you don’t mind the trip out the suburbs, go for it. But if you start to wonder exactly what the meat is, by all means ask. It tastes great, not all like chicken though, but definitely worth the sampling. Um, um, good.