Flavors of India available in a fast-casual atmosphere at Tikkawala

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Just down the street from Whitney Young High School in the Near West Side, two friends who used to cook together have reunited, creating one of the best fast-casual Indian spots in town.

It's the spices that make great Indian food so distinctive, but they must be roasted, ground and toasted in-house.

Little Tikkawala, right next to the Chicago Police Training Center, punches well above its weight, cooking homemade dishes inspired by their Indian childhoods and travels. The dishes are executed as if they were in some big-deal restaurant in the West Loop.

You'll catch a whiff of the freshly toasted-and-ground spices pretty quickly once inside Tikkawala. The tiny, fast-casual concept looks like an ordinary fast food operation, but partners Hiran Patel and Sahil Singh bring plenty of big-time kitchen experience and expertise to the Near West Side.

"It's an Indian restaurant, with takes on Indian food or Indian flavors from our perspective." said Patel.

A fine example is the lamb rogan josh. Toasted, ground cumin and a garam masala, or spice mixture, are added to a saute pan with chunks of braised lamb. The earthy-rich gravy has a base of caramelized onions and also contains black cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Singh adds crispy onions and fresh cilantro for texture and freshness.

Speaking of fresh, their mango-apple salad is hard to resist, with perfectly dressed all of the cucumbers, berries and sunflower seeds.

"We eat a lot of mangos in India, right? Berries are in season, let's do a mango-apple salad," he said.

One of the specials, usually offered at night, is the keema pav, which is perfectly satisfying and slightly familiar.

"I kind of call it the Indian sloppy joe," said Patel. "Ground beef, peas, carrots, with the garam masala and a little bit of green mint chutney."

Also familiar, a fantastic fried chicken sandwich, accented with some Indian spices, and a refreshing mango lassi. The lassi is made from scratch with mango pulp, yogurt and sugar whisked thoroughly before being ladled into cups.

A full section of the menu is devoted to grilled items, and in the case of the marinated lamb chops served over a ginger and potato puree and topped with a mint-cilantro-ginger chimichurri of sorts, laced with cumin.

"Our goal here is to make it playful," he said.

1258 W. Jackson Blvd.

In Steve's Extra Course Video, he talks about one of the homemade desserts on the menu - a carrot cake but with an Indian twist.

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In Steve's Extra Course Video, he talks about one of the homemade desserts on the menu - a carrot cake but with an Indian twist.

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