Explore the Fascinating Histories Between Mexican and Indian Cuisine in Bucktown

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Mexicans and Indians have a shared history in the United States, one that emerged in the ‘70s with the emergence of Punjabi Mexican cuisine as a flurry of single Indian men arrived in Sacramento, California so they could build railroads.

“It’s a really cool history between two very rich cultures,” says Mohajir, the James Beard Award semifinalist this year for his work at Indian tasting-menu restaurant Coach House and casual bar Lilac Tiger.

Mohajir, along with his fellow South Asian chef, Rishi Kumar — last seen in Chicago working for Rick Bayless at Bar Sotano — wants Mirra, their upcoming Bucktown restaurant at 1954 W. Armitage Avenue, are planning an onslaught of dishes like lamb barbacoa dum biryani. Breaking the roti seal that encloses the rice reveals a bouquet of Mexican chiles and other spices. It’s an experience that shows diners that Mirra won’t be a standard tandoori taco shop where tortillas or roti are stuffed with butter chicken.

“We just want to be very clear that this is a representation of who we are,” Mohajir says. “We’re telling the story as immigrants and as diaspora Indians, giving our perspective of what we’d like food to be and telling the stories of immigrant influences in the Americas.”

There are about 70 seats and a chef’s counter where diners can get a little more TLC from the chefs including special plates that won’t be available a la carte. Sample dishes include a caldo-inspired option made with seafood, lentils, black pepper, and mustard seed. They’re also working on a dosa folded like a tetela — a snack made out of corn masa and folded into triangles. There’s also carne asada with dry-aged steak, salsa macha, roasted eggplant bharta, and onion. Thai flavors factor in with the chile relleno laarb, a Guerro chile stuffed with sujuk flavored like the classic Thai salad. A churro-gulab jamun mash-up could also appear for dessert. They’ll open with dinner with service expanding later this summer.

The chefs are partnering with bartender David Mor, who handles the beverage program at Lilac Tiger. Last month, Mor and his three partners opened a cocktail bar, Truce, just down the street on Damen from Mirra. Mor has a triple chai daiquiri on Truce’s menu, using the masala chai recipe from Mohajir at Lilac Tiger. Mor is promising a quadruple chai daiquiri for Mirra. Tony Perez, who works with Mohajir at Coach House, leads Mirra’s wine program.

Kumar left Chicago for Miami in December 2022 to take a job as the culinary director for 50 Eggs Hospitality Group, the company behind Yardbird: “When I was in Miami, I had to cook where everything had to be lit on fire,” Kumar jokes about South Beach’s alleged preferences for pyrotechnics. “Then I could charge $200.”

But the Chicago audience is different, and Kumar missed Chicago where he embraced the concept of “Chi-Mexican” — Midwest-inspired Mexican food championed by Bayless. There’s a particular hunger to be daring in Chicago when it comes to Mexican food, Kumar says.

“We’ll go to a farmers market, and learn like this green could be working the same way as a dhal,” Kumar says. “Yeah, we want to discover and grow [Indian] cuisine to the level of [Mexican food in America].”

Two chefs in a kitchen.
Chefs Rishi Kumar (left) and Zubair Mohajir cook together.

Mohajir adds: “I think, now, people are looking at Indian cooking like they look at Mexican. They finally understand they’re both regional cooking — what you eat in Chennai is not what you’re gonna get in Amritsar.”

The owners of Masala y Maiz, an acclaimed restaurant in Mexico, showed Mojhair and Kumar how harmonious Mexican and Indian cuisine can complement each other. Norma Listman and Saqib Keval, who have Mexican and Indian roots, have deliberately distinguished their restaurant from others. Dishes like a samosa stuffed with suadero (slow-cooked beef) exemplify the gradual combining of cultures they call “mestizaje.” Masala y Maiz positions mestizaje as a means of survival, a way for immigrants to combat colonialism. It’s the difference between organically combining ideas versus booking a vacation and seeing a foreign country as a resource, one whose only purpose is to provide inspiration for a new restaurant.

Mirra won’t be as direct with political messaging as Masala y Maiz. The restaurant’s biggest fans, including Mohajir and Kumar, appreciate the backstories and politics behind Listman and Keval’s dishes. The couple popped up in 2022 at Bar Sotano in Chicago and met Kumar and Bayless. That’s when Kumar unveiled a unique mash-up, combining an Indian dhokla — traditionally a fermented rice cake — with the corn masa of a Mexican tamale.

Ceviche will play a big role in Mirra’s menu.

Still, Mirra’s story differs. Though the two chefs are South Asian, their backgrounds aren’t the same. Mohajir was born in South India, in Tamil Nadu. He grew up in Qatar before his family moved to Chicago’s suburbs when he was 12. Kumar’s family is Indian and he was born in Singapore, leaving home to study Mexican cooking in Chicago under Bayless: “He’s the most Mexican, Indian, Singaporean guy, I know,” Mohajir says of Kumar.

While in Florida, Kumar realized how much he missed Chicago — his restaurant colleagues noted he’d constantly talk about the city. At that point, he realized that he wasn’t just American, but he was a Chicagoan: “It’s 50 different countries sometimes here,” Kumar says of America. “How I feel is that I’m very Chicago and I’m proud of the city.”

Kumar has been popping up at Mohajir’s Wicker Park restaurant over the last few weeks with a late-night taco omakase — something they’ll extend to July 17. The restaurant’s name is the same as a menu Mohajir launched last year, inspired by the 17th-century story of Catarina de San Juan, an enslaved Indian woman kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and brought to Mexico via Manila. Before she was kidnapped, she was called “Mirra.” Mohajir, like many fine dining chefs, enjoys weaving a narrative into this cooking, adding context to dishes and mentioning Mirra’s story. Though historical accounts aren’t consistent, “Mirra” was hailed as a saint until the late 1700s.

Because Mirra’s chefs know they aren’t from Mexico, they’ve been cautious in how they approach the restaurant, stressing that the basis for many of their recipes came from their families. They’re trying to celebrate a history with which few Americans are familiar and to create food that doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

“We’ve come so far in our careers that we don’t want to take a misstep and say like, ‘Oh, we could have done it the right way’,” Kumar says.

Mirra, 1954 W. Armitage Avenue, planned for a late July opening

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