Lovers of dainty potato and pea samosas, orange-hued chicken tikka masala, and fluffy garlic naan bread have trusted Khyber Pass, 1031 Lake St., to satisfy their cravings for more than a quarter of a century. The downtown Oak Park restaurant is turning back the clock two years to celebrate its 25th anniversary on Friday, Sept. 16. The pandemic squelched plans for a proper celebration and now, as the restaurant nears its 27th birthday, owner Malik Jawid is eager to celebrate as if it was the major milestone he missed.

Malik Jawid is welcoming guests into Khyber Pass to celebrate the milestone anniversary that passed them by during the pandemic. Credit: Elsmo

“I always believed I would make it because I gave it my all,” said Jawid with just a hint of pride. “I had a passion for the business and knew good food and good service could get me through anything.”

Jawid emigrated from Punjab, Pakistan to Chicago in 1987 where he immediately found a job as busboy at Viceroy of India in East Rogers Park. Though the restaurant is now permanently closed, Jawid worked his way up from busboy to manager and learned the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business. He never worked in the kitchen but has a deep appreciation for nuanced Indian dishes and the Pakistani fare of his homeland.

In the mid-90’s, a case of wanderlust brought Jawid on an accidental trip to Oak Park. He had been exploring downtown Chicago and hopped on the outbound Eisenhower expressway. He exited at Harlem thinking it would take him home, but after getting a little turned around found himself right in the middle of Lake Street.

“I looked around, saw the movie theater, and thought I am going to open my restaurant here,” said Jawid. “I loved the cosmopolitan feel of the downtown area, but I had to figure out where I was to know where I wanted to go.”

In time he learned there was a culinary gap in his serendipitously discovered community — Oak Park needed an Indian restaurant. In 1995 Jawid opened Khyber Pass, named for a mountain pass linking Pakistan to Afghanistan and central Asia, and began serving reliable meat based and vegetarian Indian fare with notable Pakistani influences.

Khyber Pass employs two chefs; one has been with the restaurant for 20 years and the other for 12. The consistency of their house-made dishes is unwavering. Over the years their cuisine has evolved to include more vegetarian dishes to keep up with local and national trends, but Jawid is clear that 70% of orders include rich and creamy chicken tikka masala. The perennially popular yogurt-marinated curried chicken dish is complemented by lamb dishes like karahi gosht featuring braised meat in spiced gravy with peppers, tomatoes and onion. An assortment of Pakistani rice dishes called biryani also feature prominently on the Khyber Pass menu.

Over the years, Jawid has both expanded and collapsed his restaurant, but loyal customers have helped Khyber Pass endure for 25 (plus two) years. The owner reflected on the joy he felt upon earning the coveted “four fork” rating from the Chicago Tribune and grappling with a line of customers snaking around the block. He remembers the uneasy feeling he had as Muslim restaurant owner in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack but cherishes the memory of the Oak Park community rallying around him during those uncertain times. But without hesitation, Jawid named the generations of customers as his biggest source of pride.

Samosas will be a part of the 25th (plus two) anniversary celebration at Khyber pass this Friday. Credit: Elsmo

“I met some of my best customers when they were in highchairs and they have grown up before my eyes,” said Jawid. “It makes me so proud to know my customers this well and for so long.”

Khyber Pass’s 25th anniversary redux is a celebration for the community. Jawid and his accommodating staff are inviting guests to come into the restaurant on Friday Sept. 16 to enjoy a free samosa or pakora. He will be giving away packets of their house made garam masala spice blend with dine-in and carryout orders and anticipates having live sitar players on site for the evening. Twenty-five percent of every order on Friday will be donated directly to flood relief efforts in Pakistan. Dollars raised at Khyber Pass will provide gallons of water to flooded communities and nourishing meals for children.

“I am grateful to the community for their support over the years.” said Jawid. ““I came here because this is the land of opportunity.”

When asked if his American dream came true, Jawid gestured around Khyber Pass’s packed dining room in the heart of Oak Park and simply said, “Of course.”

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