The Cajun 'Wich 

West Loop sandwich vets go NOLA at Mac and Mins; Mia Figlia, a trattoria from a Tizi Melloul vet; and fancy pancakes on Taylor Street at Stax Cafe. Plus: 13 southern restaurants

Muffuletta and shrimp po’boy at Mac and Min’s

Muffuletta and shrimp po’boy at Mac and Min’s

Eric Futran

The overwhelming menu at Mark Bires and Mindy Friedler's old West Loop sandwich shop Jerry's has been preserved at their newer, larger Wicker Park location—which is to say it still reads like the obsessively detailed manifesto of a schizophrenic scribbling on an envelope. But that's probably cold comfort to regulars back in the lunch-light West Loop, who may view the comparatively limited selection of po'boys at Bires and Friedler's new Mac and Min's with despair.

For the rest of us, though, the lineup of New Orleans-style submarines still encourages dithering—especially if you're of a mind to stray from icons like the fried oyster po'boy. The spicy batter-coated bivalves could stand a harder fry, but otherwise it's as faithful a rendition of the classic sandwich as you're likely to find outside of Louisiana. Similarly faithful are the roughly sliced roast beef, bathed in a tangy gravy, and the barbecue shrimp—not barbecued at all but rather enrobed in a NOLA butter-garlic-Worcestershire sauce I'd be happy to lick off a shoe. The bread (against which the aforementioned crustaceans provide a satisfying pop) comes from D'Amato's, except for the La Farine ciabbatta that restrains the story upon story of ham, mortadella, capicola, salami, Provolone, and olive salad in the almost obscenely towering muffuletta.

I've had one stinker so far in my efforts to work down the menu: a special corn crab cake that was crispy hot on one side, cold on the flip, and wasted stomach space that could have been filled with spicy chaurice sausage or surf-and-turf shrimp and beef. But in contrast to Jerry's, with its blunderbuss approach to sandwich making, Mac and Min's is a focused if swooning love letter to New Orleans. There are a few unfortunate corny touches, such as as Mardi Gras beads and masks on the wall, but the thoughtful complements—chicory coffee in a French press, a complete line of Zapp's potato chips, and the most respectfully rendered andouille-and-chicken gumbo I've slurped outside of the Crescent City—make it a keeper. —Mike Sula

John Boudouvas is a Tizi Melloul alum, but Mia Figlia, the comfortable Edgebrook neighborhood trattoria he and chef-partner Armando Lopez have created, owes more to their time working at the Francesca's restaurants. It even looks a little like one: a two-room storefront with light oak floors, butcher-paper-covered tables, and a sit-down bar up front. The menu mostly sticks to the tried and true, and almost nothing tastes authentically Italian. But the cooking is competent, with some interesting twists.

Carpaccio benefited from a novel garnish of potato salad coated with basil pesto. Chewy baby octopus tossed with roasted red peppers, capers, and arugula had plenty of grilled flavor. And if everything were as good as the warm lentils, complemented by baby spinach, piquant black olives, tangy goat cheese, and a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, I'd be back regularly. I wouldn't come for the pizza, though—our margherita with acidic plum-tomato sauce, bland house-made mozzarella, and basil didn't compare to the city's best, even if it was only $8.

Old-fashioned eggplant Parmesan with a side of al dente linguine in spunky tomato sauce could have been prepared by an Italian-American mama, and the same was true of the substantial, reasonably priced pastas and secondi. Dense handmade cavatelli in rich Gorgonzola cream sauce needed spicier house-made sausage, but toasted walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes added some pizzazz. Nicely braised osso buco alla Milanese with chunky carrots and celery on pea-laced saffron risotto made up for in portion size what it lacked in finesse. While the tagliata al marsala arrived medium rare rather than rare as ordered, the tender sliced steak with smoked mozzarella sticks, lots of roasted wild mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and marsala glaze was a satisfying meal.

We didn't have much room for dessert, but no matter: espresso creme brulee looked unappealing and tasted like chocolate pudding, and an intriguing olive oil cake was marred by underripe slices of grilled peach. The small Italian wine list is affordable but may disappoint serious oenophiles. Considerate service was unevenly paced. —Anne Spiselman

Spiro Tsaldaris—whose family used to own breakfast favorite Eppel's—is behind Taylor Street's new Stax Cafe, a higher-end concept for breakfast and lunch with offerings like brisket hash, falafel sliders, pineapple upside-down pancakes, and blue-corn-and-bacon waffles. Chef Chris Barron is in the kitchen, bringing to the table experience from Market and a couple of Jerry Kleiner's venues (Opera, Red Light). This corner spot done up in shades of cafe au lait has a white-tiled counter with a full view of the kitchen and a juice bar serving fresh orange, grapefruit, and apple juice, the last with a pineapple leaf stirrer.

It'd be silly not to try the pancakes at a place called Stax; we went with white chocolate-raspberry and, no, there was no need for maple syrup. Eggs Sardou, artichoke cups filled with creamed spinach, poached eggs, and hollandaise, were on the bland side, but the Parma Prosciutto—polenta cakes with poached eggs, salty prosciutto, and Parmesan—was just heaven. The fried potatoes that accompany most egg dishes are beautifully done, perfectly crisped in oil for a guilty crunch. Lunch brings sandwiches, burgers—both a half-pound Angus and a turkey burger—and salads. —Izidora Angel

Southern Pride

Thirteen spots for po'boys and other regional fare

The Big Easy

1660 E. 55th | 773-643-5500

$

CAJUN, BARBECUE/RIBS, BAKERY | 8 AM-9 PM MONDAY-SATURDAY, 8 AM-7 PM SUNDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH

Around since 1981, this space has had a number of incarnations, as the restaurant and bakery Orly's, as Jalapeños, as Orly's again. Then last year owner David Shopiro closed down shop for a three-month-long renovation and reopened it in January as the Big Easy, bringing in Jennifer Gavin—a former contestant on the reality show Hell's Kitchen—as chef. A few months in, she was already history. But on offer remains New Orleans fare like jambalaya, etouffee, and po'boys, plus southern barbecue. An on-site bakery turns out everything from the bread for the po'boys to beignets to the muffins, brownies, coffee cake, and other items available in an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet during weekend brunch. There's a full bar with 15 microbrews on tap. —Kate Schmidt

Big Jones

5347 N. Clark | 773-275-5725

$$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD  | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH

Paul Fehribach, former chef at Schubas' Harmony Grill, has taken the space long home to trapped-in-amber Augie's diner and turned it into an airy, minimalist dining room distinguished by floor-to-ceiling windows and wrought-iron chandeliers. Like those chandeliers, the menu gives a little wave to the French Quarter. The cocktail list is full of daiquiris, hurricanes, and nicely balanced Sazeracs—including one with absinthe—and the menu includes crawfish-boudin croquettes and a rich and smoky gumbo with chicken and andouille. I didn't try the sandwiches but I wish I had: at a neighboring table a sizable Tallgrass beef burger with fontina and aioli was provoking groans of happiness. And the fresh, clean flavors of a simple house salad got my friend to sit up and take notice. All in all Big Jones seems to be striving to fuse the accoutrements of upscale dining with the down-home soul of country cooking. When it works, the results are stellar, both sophisticated and bone-deep satisfying. —Martha Bayne

Blue Bayou

3734 N. Southport | 773-871-3300

$$

CAJUN, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS  | BRUNCH friday-sunday | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Bourbon Street inspires the decor, the jazz and blues music, and the Mardi Gras-ready balcony, and now the menu at this bar and grill, which offers all the standards: jamabalaya, gumbo, etouffee, Louisiana crab cakes (excellent in a three-mustard sauce). Weekend brunch features omelets, skillets, eggs Benedict, and a "Creole" French toast made with brioche. New Orleans-style drinks abound, and there are regular burlesque shows, comedy nights, and live jazz performances. —Ryan Hubbard

Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe & Voodoo Lounge

6501 W. 79th, Burbank | 708-229-8700

$$

SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD, MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN, CAJUN, MUSIC VENUE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 2

Chuck Pine spent two and a half years at Topolobampo under the tutelage of Rick Bayless before striking out on his own. Pine wants to show his customers the great variety within Mexican and deep south cooking, at prices much lower and in an atmosphere more casual than at other shops around town started by Bayless's flock. He continually travels, studying Cajun, Creole, and Mexican regional cooking styles. Cinco de Mayo and Mardi Gras are the best times to visit, when monthlong blowouts warrant daily specials like a trio of homemade chorizos and chiles en nogada—poblanos stuffed with meat and fruit, covered in walnut sauce and grapes. Pine always throws a few curveballs in as well: paella, say, or Creole-Italian dishes like lasagna with andouille. Normally when restaurants try to do so many different things they do none of them well, but Pine cooks by his whims consistently well. Now in a new location, he's offering live music and a bar menu available up to an hour before closing. —Mike Sula

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

825 Church, Evanston | 847-733-9030

$

CAJUN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS  | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Crowded with kitschy signs and bric-a-brac, this small chain restaurant is about as authentic as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but regulars appreciate the $6.25 lunch special, the brunch menu (jambalaya omelets, eggs Sardou over fried green tomatoes), and the stiff hurricanes and Bellinis. The Hyde Park location has closed, but some DK menu items are available at a sister restaurant, Calypso Cafe (5211 S. Harper, 773-955-0229). —Kate Schmidt

Heaven on Seven

111 N. Wabash | 312-263-6443

$

CAJUN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: MONDAY-SATURDAY  | CLOSED SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Step off the elevator and get in line: this original Cajun restaurant, one of the first in town, is hidden in a seventh-floor coffee shop in the Garland Building in the heart of the Loop. Open just 9 AM to 4 PM Monday through Friday and Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM, it attracts a steady stream of fans who line up in the corridor and sometimes wait as long as 45 minutes for chef-owner Jimmy Bannos Sr.'s lively, authentic food: consistently good jambalaya, gumbo, and po'boys, plus daily etouffees, pastas, and more. Diners can spice up dishes at will with the ubiquitous bottles of hot sauce. For more regular dinner service, check out the restaurant's spin-off location at 600 N. Michigan (entrance at Rush and Ohio). —Laura Levy Shatkin

Lagniappe Creole Cajun Joynt

1525 W. 79th | 773-994-6375

$$

CAJUN | LUNCH, DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY | BYO

This Creole-Cajun place in Auburn-Gresham started out as a catering and carryout joint only, but it now seats about 20 for dishes such as chicken or shrimp creole, an etouffee of the day, jambalaya, and a range of po'boys—shrimp, oyster, catfish, and soft-shell crab. Red beans and rice are available with or without a hunk of andouille, brought up from Louisiana; side dishes range from dirty rice (made what owner Mary Madison calls the authentic way, with chicken spleen) to "candy sweets," candied sweet potatoes. Madison offers a few more generally southern dishes as well—fried green tomatoes, Cajun grilled chicken, chicken wings and waffles, and pulled pork sandwiches. Banana pudding is the most popular dessert, but there's also sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and "cake in a jar" (which is pretty much what it sounds like). Service is slow but courteous, and Lagniappe is BYOB. —Anne Ford

Lillie's Q

1856 W. North | 773-772-5500

$$

BARBECUE/RIBS, SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Charlie McKenna, the chef at Lillie's Q, certainly looks good on paper, with a pedigree in both fine dining (Tru, Avenues) and barbecue (his family owns the original Lillie's Q in Destin, Florida, and they've been successful on the competition circuit). This Wicker Park arm of the family business has many of the traditional restaurant amenities the other doesn't, along with an abundance of Disney-esque accents to remind you you've stepped into (cue banjos) The South. There's even a granny in a country kitchen who figures in the folksy creation story of McKenna's five sauces. But despite all the set dressing, the air inside and out seems scrubbed of the telltale alluring aromas of smoking flesh, and likewise a few of the crucial meats lack a proper smoke infusion. This is particularly true of the pulled chicken and pulled pork, respectively the most unforgiving and forgiving of meats when it comes to barbecue. Chicken cooks quickly and dries out easily. Pulled pork (the category in which McKenna triumphed at 2007's Memphis in May barbecue competition) is just the opposite, yet here it's mined of all the wonderful fat and connective tissue a low, slow smoking should render into glistening porky goodness. It's puzzling that both are so overexhausted and in need of the lubricating effects of Grandma Lillie's sauces. And these, from the Carolina to the Hot Smoky, are hobbled by excessive sweetness—with the exception of the mayo-based Ivory, which one server recommended for the fries, no doubt to counter the liberal sprinkling of barbecue rub. Maybe it's a case of overrestraint. It actually works for the beef tri-tip, an unorthodox cut for barbecue—fantastic, lightly kissed with smoke and served in rosy pink slices. And baby back ribs are neither gnarly nor wobbly and in the running for some sort of beauty contest, shellacked with an unnecessary but photogenic glaze of camouflaging sauce. There are also some honest interpretations of southern food, including the cold, chunky pimento cheese, chile-amped cheesy shrimp and grits, and a juicy corn-and-bean-studded Brunswick stew. But the most important thing in any place purporting to make barbecue isn't the sides, the sauce, or the figurative southern twang—it's the meat. In the case of a few items, Lillie's Q is doing it better than anybody else in the new crop, and given its other comforts—the lack of which keep many north-siders away from joints like Barbara Ann's and Uncle John's—it's probably better than it needs to be. —Mike Sula

The Local Option

1102 W. Webster | 773-435-3136

$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, CAJUN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, other nights till 2 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

ESPN on the flat screen? Check. Twenty-five revolving brews on tap? Check. Golden Tee? Check. At first glance there's nothing to distinguish the Local Option from any other Lincoln Park sports bar, and maybe that's as it should be—after all, packing your place full of New Orleans tchotchkes won't make your gumbo any better. The menu offers comfort food with a focus on Cajun and creole dishes. Foodwise, anything from the deep fryer can't miss: big, juicy sea scallops and calamari with fries and beer-battered onion rings made for a grand deep-fried meal. Other fish dishes didn't hold up as well—the grill marks on the swordfish in my fish taco were branded so deep in the flesh that nothing could mask the sharp carbon aftertaste, and the grouper in a fish sandwich was lost in a giant bun. Still, in the end the Local Option isn't a bad one. Not only does the place do pub grub proud (the burgers and wings are great), it offers a (deep-fried) taste of the bayou without the kitsch. The kitchen stays open till 11 PM every night except Sunday. —Kristina Meyer

Maple Tree Inn

13301 Olde Western, Blue Island | 708-388-3461

$$

CAJUN | DINNER: WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY-TUESDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

The Cajun fare is still bold at this south-suburban restaurant housed in an old corner tavern with an elaborately carved wooden bar, swinging saloon doors, and a large garden. The crayfish etouffee is a favorite entree; there are also contemporary offerings like a Dixie "Doorstoop" pork chop stuffed with andouille sausage, braised with Abita beer, and served with corn-bread dressing and Creole vegetables. The bar serves 26 microbrews. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Shaw's Crab House

21 E. Hubbard | 312-527-2722

$$$$

Seafood, Steaks, Bar/Lounge | lunch: Monday-Friday; dinner: seven days | open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Shaw's, Lettuce Entertain You's seafood-focused supper club, is frequently packed despite inconsistent food and service and high prices. The classic 40s-style room is inviting if somewhat cramped. The professional staff cordially serves daily specials; a global assortment of oysters on the half shell ranges from Prince Edward Island Malpeques to British Columbia Malspinas. The adjoining oyster bar is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner with a scaled-down menu, a more casual bar atmosphere, and live music on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. —Laura Levy Shatkin

The Southern

1840 W. North | 773-342-1840

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, southern/soul food | Lunch: saturday; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY  | SUNDAY BRUNCH | CLOSED MONDAY  | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

"I'll remember the food this time," said the friend I brought to the Southern, who'd accompanied me when I reviewed this Wicker Park restaurant's swanky previous incarnation, Chaise Lounge. The Southern's slightly refined Dixie-inspired fare in a casual bar setting is a much better platform for chef Cary Taylor's talents. The menu divides up items under "bar food" and "plates," aka appetizers and entrees, but there's freedom to graze. In the new rough-chic atmosphere—the main room now features reclaimed wood tables and more bar seating—we ate slim, tortillalike johnnycakes taco-style with soft, vinegary pork and sweet chow-chow that was served in a little canning jar. Red pepper dressed up cheddary shrimp and grits, making for a colorful rendition of this classic. There's a wide selection of whiskey, old-fashioned cocktails, and beers like Abita's Turbodog. —Heather Kenny

Wishbone

1001 W. Washington | 312-850-2663

$

SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY  | SATURDAY & sunday brunch

The menu rarely changes, but no one seems to mind. The throngs seem to agree that Wishbone's combination of fast, reliable, moderately creative food, brisk service, full patio, and funky decor doesn't need much tinkering. Lunch and dinner feature upscale southern comfort food such as blackened catfish, chicken-fried steak, collard greens, and buttery corn bread muffins. Wishbone packs them in for weekend breakfast with platters of reasonably priced omelets, eggs Florentine, crab cakes, and the cheesiest grits in town. There are also locations in Lakeview (3310 N. Lincoln, 773-549-2663) and Berwyn (6611 Roosevelt, 708-749-1295). —Martha Bayne

Please submit new listings or updates (include phone numbers) to restaurants@chicagoreader.com or Restaurant Listings, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.

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