Monday, August 18, 2014

The gumbo's got personality at Anita's Gumbo in Avalon Park

Posted By on 08.18.14 at 05:08 PM

Seafood gumbo, Anitas Gumbo

As a rule, the language of restaurant press releases rarely rises above a Yelp-like standard of persuasiveness (which is also why many of the food blogs that depend on them are so difficult to read). But something about the unaddressed mass e-mail I received from "Kenya Renee, the media and marketing personality for Anita's Gumbo" got through to me. Maybe it was the shamelessly impersonal flattery: "I would first like to say congrats on all your successes. I've viewed some of the sites that you write for and I've truly enjoy [sic] your thoughts on food."

But really, Renee had me at "gumbo," which is why I never exhibited swifter reflexes than when I materialized in Avalon Park, where Anita's Gumbo inhabits the north corner of a tiny strip mall on south Stony Island. Inside, you place your order through the familiar clear bulletproof barrier and park it on one of the chairs inside the vestibule. While you wait, look up and read the creation story, which begins with the late Irving Sheldon Jones, who brought his gumbo recipe to Chicago from New Orleans in 1921. Father bequeathed it to daughter, who then began honoring dad's memory every New Year's Day with a gumbo blowout, which inspired a figurative Over the River and Through the Wood to Anita's House We Go-style frenzy among friends and family.

I'm sure there's more to it than that, but media personality Renee has yet to follow up on her promise to send a "more extensive" press kit. That's OK. All you really need to know is that this gumbo is remarkable, built on a tangible and toasty roux, it's a deep, nutty, mocha-colored lava so thick you could probably walk across it. It loads a pretty mean burn too, which comes on so slowly and inexorably you might not even notice the beading on your forehead, your thumping heart, or the haunting memories of gumbos past. You won't compare it to Alfredo Nogueira's fantastic chicken-and-sausage gumbo at Analogue, even as rare as noteworthy gumbo is in this town. Unlike that finessed version, this is foundational, the ur-gumbo, the primal stew of Creole ghosts. It's almost like eating liquid toast.

The basic bowl here is the seafood gumbo, which in addition to whole okra pods, sizable chunks of bone-in chicken, and sliced chicken andouille (no pork is a point of pride here) is brimming with sea creatures—whole crab legs, shrimp, and scallops. This is the deluxe gumbo at Anita's—$20 for 32 ounces ($12 for half that). You can get a more minimal chicken gumbo, or Wednesday special Caribbean gumbo with jerk chicken and black beans, but the seafood version demonstrates an uncommon attention to detail for a takeaway spot—the shrimp and scallops taste like they've been added and cooked to order, or at least are part of some miracle species that can withstand hours of long, low, and slow simmering without turning to rubber.

Like any committed specialist Anita's offers only a few other items like jambalaya, fried wings and shrimp, shrimp and chicken po'boys, and a handful of daily specials. But the gumbo has all the personality this place needs.

Anitas Gumbo

Anita's Gumbo, 8100 S. Stony Island, 773-734-2788

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