Before my sister and I dined at Lilac Tiger, we each spent some time perusing the menu in advance, as is our strategic custom, in the hope of stemming our tendency to over-order (this never works). During that time, she became convinced that the “Ferrani Special” crispy THC nuggets actually comprised small balls of weed fried like chicken. I assumed it was a play on words, but didn’t rule out the weed nuggets idea.
The real story is far more wholesome. THC stands for tandoor honey chicken; the name dually homages executive chef/partner Zubair Mohajir’s son Ferran, whose favorite snack is his dad’s chicken nuggets, sauced with honey featuring Mohajir’s 15-spice tandoori blend. Maybe more important for Time Out readers’ purposes, though, is how utterly mouthwatering these morsels are—tangy, warmly spicy and savory-sweet with a juicy interior and exterior sporting a softened crunch like gobi manchurian, dunked in gochujang aioli that tastes like supercharged fry sauce.
Still, there’s an undeniable coolness to this low-lit Wicker Park storefront with its punchy, South Asian street food and neon vibes that makes you not want to give yourself away with a square question like, “Um, is there weed in these nuggets?”
Lilac Tiger’s (formerly Wazwan) trendiness owes in part to its indie roots, beginning as an underground tasting-menu supper club in Lakeview, then a quick-service stall in the hastily shuttered Politan Row food hall and a ghost kitchen in River West. Wazwan found a physical home in 2021, in a narrow storefront on Division Street where it slung Nihari beef momos and smash burgers. Meanwhile, Mohajir scratched his creative itch for finer dining by debuting The Coach House in the courtyard behind the restaurant, which serves an eight-course tasting menu Tuesdays through Saturdays (with optional wine and cocktail pairings).
Lilac Tiger creates a more solid anatomy for Wazwan’s shifting identity, with assists from partner Ty Fujimura (Small Bar, Entente) and collaborating culinary partner Won Kim (Kimski), plus vibrant and interesting cocktails from beverage director David Mor (Cindy's, Robert et Fils).
Mor pours a particularly memorable daiquiri by infusing smoky Demerara rum with fragrant chai tea and adding single-malt whiskey and lime before shaking the cocktail with house chai syrup. It’s bright, boozy and sultry, perfumed with ginger, clove and piney cardamom.
Alongside returning food favorites like the fried chicken sandwich and burger, Mohajir and company play with South and Southeast Asian influences with kinetic results. A smear of house achar made from sweet potato and mango brings tangy, complex saltiness and heat to sweet, sautéed tiger prawns, which are strewn with pickled onion and turmeric-stained pickled cauliflower. Slow-cured, confited duck is the rich, gamey backbone to Indo-Chinese-style fried rice with bok choy, onions and chilies and a lacey fried egg topper that packs a wallop of hot-seared textures and flavors, though it’s a little salty. Nothing a deluge of torn mint, basil and cilantro doesn’t fix; that or a cooling bashed cucumber salad tossed in house Korean chile crisp featuring heady cardamom, star anise, and citrusy cumin and coriander.
Lilac Tiger’s fast-casual identity remains alive and well, judging by the relentless crush of takeout bags bearing momos, fried rice and burgers that filled the table by the host stand, even on the mild Friday night we were there. The delicate momos, packed with soft beef shreds and seasoned with numbing sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, fall flat when dragged through a one-note beef jus sauce. Meanwhile, the double smash burger with oozing jalapeño cheese and a generous smear of magnetic mint chutney is prescriptively decadent and a little unexpected. Like the tiger poutine with house paneer and Korean-spiced curry sauce, it nevertheless jibes with the brash flavor bombs populating almost every restaurant menu, which I call fancy fast food for high people.
Though I’d like to see Mohajir stretch even further on the non-handhelds end, I appreciate that the restaurant so confidently threads the needle of the city’s shifting relationship to dining out. As Mor later told me, it helps that the entire Wazwan team has been along for the whole ride, growing with each stage of the journey.
“We're continuing to learn who we are and how to be consistent and bold in our new concept,” he said.
Our server, who doubled as the host, indeed proved a delightfully opinionated menu expert, though my sister and I still insisted on over-ordering, right on through the cooling mango milk cake with coconut jam and toasted-coconut crunchies. Anyway, that’s what to-go boxes are for, and we know Lilac Tiger stocks them in spades.
The vibe: Dark, cool and loud without taxing the eardrums, expect to see the young crowd knocking back occasional sake bombs. Seating is scarce and Lilac Tiger doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early or prepare to wait.
The food: South and Southeast Asian dishes are bold and satisfying, deftly balancing sophisticated flavors in casual guises. Don’t miss the Ferrani Special THC chicken nuggets, tiger prawns with house achar and entrées like duck fried rice and roasty, cinnamony chettinad masala with cumin rice.
The drink: Classic cocktails meet the South Asian pantry, like the beguiling mezcal negroni with coconut liqueur and cracked coriander seeds and a spicy marg with mango, ginger, lime and serrano. A house pale wheat from Marz Brewing complements the bold fare. Nonalcoholic options include a quenching (if pricey for its coupe serving size) Chai Wish with house chai and allspice-y Seedlip Spice 94.