WICKER PARK — A South Asian street food pop-up is open in Wicker Park.
Wazwan opened last week at the former site of The Clampdown cheesesteak spot, 1742 W. Division St.
The restaurant is a project from chef Zubair Mohajir, who for the past several months has been preparing to open a permanent location, under the name Aman, in Ukrainian Village.
After supply chain and construction delays kept pushing back Aman’s opening, Mohajir got antsy and needed to get back into the kitchen, even temporarily, he said. When he found out The Clampdown’s storefront was available, he jumped at the chance to move in.
“I missed feeding people and just watching people eat our food,” Mohajir said. “I love watching people eat. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
All the meat on Wazwan’s menu is halal, and the dishes feature a mix of South Asian and Southeast Asian influences. Items include the nihari momo, a dumpling dish with Sichuan peppers and chili oil, as well as the chana chaat taco with chickpeas, cilantro and cauliflower.
The cuisine is inspired by Mohajir’s upbringing in India and Qatar, where he lived before moving to the Chicago area as a middle schooler. He said the mix of casual and fine dining, plus his distinctive menu, makes Wazwan a unique player in the Chicago food scene.
“With halal, and just from the perspective that we’re coming at it with, from the South Asian perspective, there’s not a lot of people doing it. And it’s great. For us, it’s like, we’re kind of adding to the industry,” Mohajir said.
Wazwan features a to-go window at the restaurant’s entrance, with counter dining and picnic tables on the sidewalk. Behind the storefront is an old coach house Mohajir has turned into a dining room to host tasting menu seatings.
“I just came across this place, and it just fit perfectly to what we want to do,” he said. “Its front is casual. We have a kitchen in the middle. And then the back is this beautiful coach house that used to be a horse stable in the 1800s … and now it’s a dining room.”
Mohajir got into the restaurant industry after working for years as banker in Chicago. After the Great Recession hit in 2008, he finally felt “free” to pursue his lifelong interest in food, he said.
“I’m like, ‘What do I want to do?’ And cooking was something that was just very close to me. I always was the guy who looked into going into culinary school like eight times, but always threw it in the garbage, because I was like, ‘Nobody’s going to understand,’” he said.
After working in kitchens in Chicago and California, Mohajir started hosting tasting menu events and pop-ups a few years ago under the Wazwan brand.
A turning point for the business was the I Heart Halal festival in 2018, where Mohajir sold hundreds of tandoori fried chicken sandwiches, now a menu anchor at the Division Street pop-up, he said.
“We did 500 pounds of chicken that weekend. … And I was like, ‘I can’t stop making this sandwich.’ That sandwich now has basically brought us to where we are now,” he said. “We had introduced ourselves to Chicago, and from then it’s just been a blessing of like, people just liking the food.”
Wazwan’s pop-up runs through the end of September, and Mohajir said he plans to start holding tasting menu seatings next weekend. The restaurant is open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
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