Illinois Cajun country: Near Starved Rock is a place to get your fill of gator
Ron McFarlain, owner of Cajun Connection in Utica, Ill., holds a piece of alligator he gets from his native Louisiana.
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UTICA, Ill. -- The broad corn and soybean fields of north-central Illinois are a few bayous and alligators short of Cajun country, but on a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 6, Ron McFarlain's Louisiana roots are carried on the wind.
Outside of Cajun Connection, things smell different enough from the usual rural Midwest to make you wonder: What is that? Seafood sizzling in golden oil? Blackened alligator on the grill? Salt and paprika meeting garlic and butter? In a word, yes.
If you doubt, just wait until the waitress speaks: "Our appetizer special is barbecued shrimp, and the entree is fried turtle and fried gator," she says.
Goodbye to the Midwest.
Amid a constellation of small Illinois towns -- Peru, LaSalle, Utica, Ottawa -- Mr. McFarlain has served the flavors of his Lake Charles, La., upbringing since the mid-'90s. Housed in a modest 90-year-old former single-family home, Cajun Connection sits just north of Starved Rock State Park, which creates one of the finest mini-road trips a Chicagoan can imagine: drive 90 miles southwest, hike for an afternoon through Starved Rock's compact canyons, then fill the belly with Cajun food rooted in Mr. McFarlain's cooking-rich heritage.
"As a kid, it wasn't nothing to kill a gator and say, 'Hey, we're having fried gator tonight,' " said Mr. McFarlain, 55. "What we killed, we cleaned, cooked and ate."
The restaurant also is heavy on Mr. McFarlain himself. The affable gray-goateed Southerner likes to get to know his customers and banters readily with them in his long drawl. As I walked in one Wednesday, he sat with four customers while telling stories before pausing to say to me -- though we'd never met -- "I'm having trouble with this table."
"Look out," he said, turning back to his audience. "This guy's a cop." (I'm not.)
The point is this: The odds of getting through a meal without interacting with Cajun Ron are close to zero. But that's OK because along with the accordion-laced Cajun hits churning from the speakers and the walls adorned with Cajun witticisms, his banter is part of the experience.
"When I started, I couldn't sell one piece of gator," he said. "Back in 1995, they didn't know nothing about the swamp here."
Now customers line up for it. Beyond the frills -- the decor, the music, Mr. McFarlain himself -- Cajun Connection offers a legitimately Southern culinary experience, all the way down to a drink list thick with bottles of Abita, a beer made east of Baton Rouge.
The next obvious order was an appetizer of boudin, that gloriously greasy take on ground pork mixed with rice and spices that comes in link or ball shape. Links are the more traditional version, but balls -- fried, of course -- are a slightly more palatable method for those who don't want to suck pork out of an animal casing. Mr. McFarlain, to his credit, offers both.
Boudin in the middle of Illinois? How does that happen?
"We make it," the waitress said. "We make pretty much everything."
The link arrived, curving across a shallow white bowl, trailed by a few drips of orange grease and a serrated knife. Nothing fancy, but it was the real thing: hearty, meaty and fresh, gliding decadently from its tube.
On we went to an array of main courses. Mr. McFarlain makes ordering easy by offering sample platters of three, four or five items, which is the ideal way to eat Cajun food; why choose among jambalaya, etouffee, red beans and rice, and blackened alligator when you can have all four? And we did -- with a side of gumbo.
The etouffee was buttery and savory, highlighted by fresh, supple crawfish. The red beans and rice were dark, rich and lively. The jambalaya, which the waitress said she could eat by the plate, was maybe the best thing on the table: a deft melding of salty, smoky and meaty with a surprising touch of sweet. The not-too-rich gumbo was a fine counterpoint to all the grand spice and flavor. But the blackened alligator was the revelation, not just for its perfect combination of salt and char but because of its remarkable tenderness. (Frying it just interferes with the meat in my opinion, though many Southerners disagree.)
Just think about it: fresh, tender alligator in the middle of Illinois. It happens only because Mr. McFarlain travels to Louisiana each fall to check out the quality of that year's gator haul.
"Everything is Louisiana here," he said.
And that's the key to Cajun Connection. Anyone can serve Cajun food up North and score novelty points. Mr. McFarlain serves Cajun food that is fresh and deliberately prepared after a lifetime of expertise, and that adds up to more than novelty points. It's an unlikely sliver of the South.
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am