While evidence of a large prehistoric Native American village was unearthed in 2013 during construction of the West Ridge Nature Preserve, the first well-known settlements in the area were Potawatomi villages established in the 1600s. Several treaties led to their forced displacement in the early 19th century, allowing German and Luxembourger farming communities to take root by the 1840s. Disputes, mostly over using tax revenue to fund parks, incited the “Cabbage War” between the increasingly urban Rogers Park to the east and bucolic West Ridge (where a lot of cabbage was grown). The conflict resulted in the designation of West Ridge as a village in 1890, and its ultimate annexation into Chicago in 1893. The completion of the North Shore Channel in 1910 and boom in the brickyard industry attracted German and Scandinavian newcomers. Extensive bungalow and two-flat developments catered to the middle-class facilitated an even larger population surge after World War I. The Devon Avenue commercial district coalesced in the post war period as demand for access to goods and services increased. West Ridge again experienced considerable growth after World War II as first and second generation, Russian, and Polish Jews flooded the area. Since the 1960s, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Assyrian, and Korean immigrants have contributed to the pronounced diversity of the residential population. With over 40 languages spoken and its robust ethnic business community, West Ridge, or West Rogers Park as it is known interchangeably, is a neighborhood that celebrates multiculturalism and connecting Chicagoans to the broader world.
A Great Day in West Ridge (West Rogers Park)
A visit to one of several acclaimed bakeries is a nice way to begin an exploration of the neighborhood’s international cuisine. For the last 80 plus years, Levinson’s Bakery has been providing quality breads and pastries on Devon Avenue. In addition to Jewish mainstays like challah (traditional braided bread) and babka (sweet yeast cake), popular items include the pistachio cannoli and chocolate chip strudel. Jagodinka Bakery & Café is a highly recommended destination for a superb sweet or savory Serbian crepe or pastry like the apple walnut puff.
Most of West Ridge lies within the historic Northside “Bungalow Belt”. A stroll through the Rogers Park Manor Historic District reveals some of Chicago’s most elaborate 1920s bungalows. Particularly impressive are the 2500 block of W. Morse Ave. and 2600 blocks of W. Farwell Ave. and W. Coyne Ave. with rows of homes adorned with polygonal front bays and art glass windows.
It’s no secret that Devon Avenue is the Midwest’s epicenter of South Asian cuisine, but selecting the best lunch choice may require some consideration. Uru Swati is popular for visitors seeking a range of vegetarian items on a budget. The BYOB spot serves up both North and South Indian street food staples such as dosas (pancake/crepe), parathas (flatbread), samosas, vadas (fritters or dumplings), puris (deep-fried bread), and various other chaats (savory fried snacks made from dough). Just across the street, Annapurna, which has been serving the community for over 30 years, is another solid vegetarian, street food inspired option.
For those looking for more substantial dishes, JK Kabab House and Anmol Barbecue Restaurant are outstanding. The former is prized for their slow cooked kababs like the Bihari (marinated beef), chili chicken platter, and paneer kathi roll (cheese and mixed vegetables in a chappati bread roll), all served with a complimentary cup of sweet corn soup. Recognized as among Chicago’s best Halal eateries, Anmol Barbecue Restaurant provides high caliber Pakistani-style bbq standards such as Chicken Makhani (butter chicken), Chicken Boti (dark meat), Chicken Tikka (white meat), and Seekh Kabab (minced beef).
West Ridge is also home to a handful of Middle Eastern and Eastern European spots. Taza Bakery is a worthy destination for their tasty zataar (Middle Eastern herb mix) and cheese manakish (Levantine pizza) with a cup of Turkish coffee. Another restaurant to enjoy a good Turkish coffee but instead accompanied with excellent Balkan cuisine is Bina’s Café. The unassuming eatery features signature Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian dishes like burek (flaky savory pie) and cevapi (sausage). For dessert, the baklava or palachinka crepe will top off a satisfying dining experience.
The neighborhood has some reliable outposts for indulgent American fare as well. With its rustic aesthetic and southern style BBQ, a visit to Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse is like being transported to Tennessee or Texas. In addition to the brisket burger and Texas tacos, the BBQ staples, and the ribs in particular, are competitive with any BBQ spot in the city.
Anyone who has taken the #84 bus or driven on Peterson Avenue between California and Washtenaw has gawked at the kitschy hot dog on a fork sign hovering over Wolfy’s parking lot. The classic fast-food joint has been serving broiled and charred Chicago-style hot dogs since 1967 and is still considered among the best hot dog stands in the city.
There are a number of excellent bakeries for an afternoon confection or snack. Both Ajwaah Sweets and Pak Sweets and Bakery are solid options for barfi (milk based candy), laddu (doughy sweet ball), and halwa puri (chickpea, semolina, and bread). To sample delicious savory standards from the Caucasus region of Eurasia like khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), pelmeni (dumpling), and chebureki (deep-fried turnover), Argo Georgian Bakery may be your best bet in Chicago. Tel Aviv Kosher Bakery is a reliable source for Ashkenazic treats such as rugelach (doughy pasty) and potato kugel (casserole).
Perusing the colorful shops along Devon Avenue is an essential West Ridge activity. With its amiable owners and beautiful Indian textiles, jewelry, and home décor, Reshams has been a neighborhood favorite for over 30 years. In addition to the wide selection of saris, India Sari Palace is a popular draw for their scarfs, shawls, blouses, and high quality fabrics. For the opportunity to check out an auto rickshaw and exquisite handmade Pakistani jewelry, clothing, and various handicrafts, Shop N’ Help is well-worth a visit. All proceeds from the shop go directly to the organization Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), which provides disaster relief, education support, infrastructure development, and access to health care for those in need in the U.S. and over 20 countries abroad. Patel Brothers Grocery is a must to pick up South Asian spices, frozen Indian food, and homemade chappati (flatbread).
Another way to spend part of an afternoon is some outdoor recreation at one of the neighborhood’s beloved parks. Situated on what was a territorial border between the Pottawatomie and encroaching settlers, Indian Boundary Park is a serene, community gem. The 13-acre park includes a charming Tudor-revival fieldhouse, lagoon, picnic groves, massive wooden play structure, kids’ water feature, and Nature Play Center. Opened in 2015, the West Ridge Nature Preserve is a tranquil respite of woods, wetlands, walking paths, and a 5-acre pond. Located on a historically undeveloped 21-acre plot of Rosehill Cemetery, the new preserve is great for fishing, bird watching, and taking in the restored native flora.
Globe-spanning dinner options that abound in the neighborhood are a major source of West Ridge’s evening bustle. Two recent South Asian additions on Devon Avenue bringing in a steady stream of customers are Nepal House and Bundoo Khan. While there is an extensive selection of Indian appetizers and entrees on the menu, sampling the palatable Nepalese dishes is the true draw at Nepal House. Popular Nepalese fixtures include Vegetable or Chicken Momo (dumplings), Jhaneko Dal (lentils), Aloo Ra Seemi Ko Tarkari (potatoes and green beans), and goat dishes like Goat Sekuwa (cooked in Tandor) and Nepali Khasi (stew). With its mastery of Karachi style BBQ, satisfying entrees like aloo bhendi (potato and okra), and the delicious Mango Lassi (yogurt drink), Bundoo Khan has garnered a good deal of buzz and praise.
Another excellent newcomer is Simi’s Restaurant on Western just south of Devon. Providing Nigerian favorites such as spicy pepper soup, dun dun (fried yam with red stew), jollof rice (spicy, tomato puree), and various stews, the unobtrusive eatery attracts both West Africans looking for a taste of home and those in the know of Simi’s great food. Additional plusses are the affable and attentive staff and that it’s BYOB.
Two distinguished East Asian spots that grace the neighborhood are Gogi and Katsu. Widely acknowledged as among the best Korean BBQ restaurants in the city, Gogi offers patrons the opportunity to cook high quality cuts of samgyeopsal (pork belly), galbi (beef ribs), dwaeji galbi (pork ribs), and dak galbi (chicken) on either a wood charcoal or gas powered grill. The BBQ proteins come with quality banchan (side dishes, mostly made from fermented vegetables) and can be nicely paired with a Hite (Korean lager), Hitachino (Japanese wheat beer), or soju cocktail. For close to 30 years, Katsu has been revered as a premier sushi institution. The modest storefront and low-key atmosphere is juxtaposed with the impeccable sashimi omakase (chef’s choice), nigiri, and maki. Katsu stands out for the freshness of their fish, including yellowtail, bluefin tuna, and mackerel.
For terrific Colombian and Latin American food in tandem with live music, a visit to Sabor a Café is enjoyable way to devote an evening. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, national and international Latin, jazz, and blues bands take the stage in front of an intimate audience. Though taking in the music may be the main attraction, the several steak dishes, arepas (maize patty), and empanadas come highly recommended.
Taverns in West Ridge are few and far between, which makes Cary’s Lounge an especially valuable neighborhood drinking oasis. The welcoming Devon Avenue anomaly has been around since the early 70s. Just some of its charms include its eclectic interior, friendly bartenders and patrons, and spacious back patio.
If you need some Indo-Pak food to cap off your night, Ghareeb Nawaz is your place. The fast food style joint provides tasty standards like palak paneer (spinach, tomato gravy, and cheese), dal, butter chicken, chili chicken, and biryanis (mixed rice dish), along with Mediterranean sandwiches and gyros for their loyal Middle Eastern customers. Best of all, it’s open 24 hours, and nearly every item on the menu is under $5.
The Indo-American Heritage Museum (IAHM) promotes awareness of the history and contributions made by Indian Americans from the 1790s to today. Through the virtual galleries, guided Devon Avenue tours, and cultural programing including dance, music, and theater performances, film screenings, and presentations and discussions, the museum is a vital resource to engage with the community. IAHM’s next exhibition “Beyond Bollywood” will be on display at the Field Museum in July.
An additional community anchor is the Indo-American Center (IAC). Serving Chicagoland immigrant groups from over 20 countries, the IAC provides adult literacy, civics, and computer education courses, citizenship and immigration services, and a range of programs supporting residents, from youth to seniors.
The Take Away
Though West Ridge is often celebrated for its diversity, its best virtue may be inspiring the pursuit of pluralism. It’s not limited to people of different religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds living in relative harmony - what’s most novel is how a contingent of local residents and visitors actively seek to share and better understand each other’s cultural heritage and realities of everyday life. Most of the past and current residents we spoke with emphasized the value of belonging to this intertwined, international community. Engagement with the various independent businesses and organizations provides an illuminating window into the neighborhood’s profound cultural wealth and interplay.