New Orleans Comes to Chicago

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

One thing I have discovered about Facebook is that it can be a dangerous tool, especially to those of us who have constant appetites. For example, I was reading some comments on a friend’s wall and I saw a photo of a huge pot of what looked like gumbo. Well, I clicked on the photo and – lo and behold – when it opened to a larger photo, it was indeed a pot of gumbo. Needless to say, my food alarm went off and I was in a bit of a frenzy. Mind you, it was only a few hours past lunch and the photo had thrown me in a fit of hunger. This is what a food addiction has come to for me: anticipating 5:00 PM so that I can address my hankering.

With my thoughts fixated on gumbo and me having a lengthy weak moment, I knew where I could go to satisfy my craving. It was not necessarily ethnic food from the standpoint of ethnically non-American. I could make an exception for some New Orleans Cajun cooking. Hey, if I’m going to indulge some good American ethnic food, it will be worthy of the trip to get to a restaurant or cafe that represents the best Southern style cooking to be found. So, at 5:00 PM, I was off to Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop at 825 Church Street in Evanston, Illinois.

Johnny Cakes

Johnny Cakes

I got a seat outside so that I could enjoy the nice weather and listen to a band that was playing a few blocks away at an outside plaza. Having been to the Chicago Hyde Park location before it had closed, I had an idea of what I wanted. The server had a look of awe as I rattled off what I wanted. I started with complimentary Johnny cakes. Think small pancakes without syrup. There was a dollop of honey butter that came with the cakes and that was all I needed to be transported back South.

Then I had fried green tomatoes that came with shredded lettuce and chives. As a child, my grandmother used to fry green tomatoes. We would dash some hot sauce on those bad boys, sit back, and have a real go of. I did the same with the fried green tomatoes from Dixie Kitchen. I will admit that adding the “salad” to the fried green tomatoes struck me as a bit of a “trying to be exotic” addition because fried green tomatoes can hold their own without extra accessories. I ate it all to completion anyway.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes

The second course was a plate of crawfish and corn fritters prepared hush-puppy style, and served with a jalapeño jelly. The fritters looked like beignets and I bet that is what they were – filled with crawfish and corn. That was fine, though, as I found them to be well worth the sampling. The fritters are not stuffed to capacity with crawfish and corn, so be forewarned. There is a fair amount of each ingredient in each fritter but you do not get a well-formed ball of crawfish and corn and a coating of crust that holds it all in place. Served with the jelly, it made for a combination that I think comes across as a perfect snack.

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

And then came the reason that I had made Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop my after-work destination. I had a cup of their gumbo. May we have a moment of silence? (Pause) I never know what to do with myself when I get a spoonful of Dixie Kitchen gumbo into my tummy. The gumbo at Dixie Kitchen is not prepared with a roux base the way it is in New Orleans, but it is prepared with a gravy base. The gravy may have its origins in a roux base so I shall concede a little. That’s fine because it tastes delicious just the same. The cup of gumbo burst with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage over rice. Although I had long since taken pork out of my diet, there are some concessions that I will make all in the name of enjoying good food. I did not request to have the gumbo without the sausage. I wanted the full experience, as I have always enjoyed. I was satisfied.

Cup of Gumbo

Cup of Gumbo

But I still had a little more room for something else. I had resigned myself to the notion that I was not going to indulge any dessert, so I ordered some étouffée. Unlike the appetizer size portions for the previously mentioned items, the étouffée was a full entrée That meant I had decided to eat an appetizer amount and get the rest for take-away. Again, there wasn’t the full New Orleans experience, but I am in Chicago. There are allowances. The étouffée was prepared with a roux base and full of crawfish, shrimp, onions, celery, and peppers. The flavour was there, not the spicy kick, though. It wasn’t until I stirred up the rice and the gravy more that there was a bit more seasoning to the dish than initially. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dining experience on location and had enough to take home for later food bliss.

Crawfish Etouffee

Crawfish Etouffee

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop has that shack-on-the-bayou look about it. The Evanston location doesn’t present that look and feel as much as the location that used to reside in Chicago’s Hyde Park use to display. There may be some New Orleans traditional jazz or Zydeco music playing in the background. There are always filled bellies and chomping jaws on site. It may be that you’ll get fired if you have a nasty attitude because the service is always great. As far back as 1995, the quality of food, serve, and price has been consistently good. The food may not be exactly what you get when you go to New Orleans, but for a location so far removed from the South, it still keeps those like me who have been to New Orleans coming back. Comparing any other food to New Orleans cuisine is unfair because food in Southern Louisiana really explodes with a bloom that no one outside of New Orleans and the backwater sections of Louisiana can reproduce. In the meantime, I have made a mental note to myself to not click on any more thumbnail photos that look anything like it could be gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, or any other kind of New Orleans cuisine. Food addictions consume your thoughts so full and complete.

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on UrbanspoonDixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on Foodio54

When You Wish Upon a Star

Wishbone RestaurantMakes no difference where you are. Hmm. I think it all depends on where you are.

When I was in undergraduate, a bored applied mathematics major who picked up a second major in computer science — and was even more deadpan with nothing to do but sit through tiresome study sessions and ace every test — I often extended a few weekends with trips to the Big Easy. New Orleans with all of its grit, grime, establishments that stayed open and indulged those of us who were eighteen years old or older, and two or more weird characters stumbling through some door and falling flat on their faces in front of you, it was a nice escape from calculus equations and programming code. Then I graduated and moved to Berkeley for graduate school where hugging trees, being awakened at night by tremors, and eating brownies with special ingredients mixed in ruled.

Mojito MojoLong gone are my days of being so footloose and fancy free. I have a job that pays me enough to keep Uncle Sam smiling, a mortgage that beats letting an apartment, property taxes that make me bark like a dog, an appetite that has me struggling with the zipper in my pants, and a love of photography that keeps me in some place clicking away with any one of my cameras. I lost count after the fourth digital camera. On the photography front, I am taking another photography class: this one in photojournalism. Granted the extortion I used to do years ago would have looked great on some walls instead of in specially packaged envelopes — the statutes of limitation have long passed, it was that long — it is not a bad idea for me to polish my skill.

Cornbread and Roll

But I digress. During my most recent photography class, we all got to go to Wishbone at 3300 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview to photograph a jazz band. What a nice way to hone some photography talents by capturing some freeze frames of a band sending notes into the air while dining patrons work their teeth on some Cajun style loving from the oven. This was a brilliant idea. Going anywhere that serves delicious food is a magnet that draws me near. It begs me, taunts me, and tell me that I am a the most important person in the world. Addictions are something else, I must say, and with it being food I have no problem submitting to the flavours. Even this cup of Ethiopian coffee I am drinking while composing this journal entry is telling me to stop being so modest with my cupfuls.

Hopping Jack

Spacious, nice, and dim on the inside of Wishbone, I secured a seat at the bar while the band was playing something true to traditional jazz — and I do not mean the sexy saxophone kind of jazz that you hear on soap operas just as the pretty-pretty walks from the powder room wearing her frilly baby doll nighty. The bass guitarist played his chords on the upright bass. The pianist tickled the ebony and ivory. And the rat-a-tat-tat-pscheeee of the drums and symbol made the visit worthwhile. Now, one could complain that they were not playing any zydeco, but New Orleans is probably the most jazz-authentic city I have been to the America. You want to ease into good food, not get up and dance to some zydeco — unless it is just that good. And the band played on.

Base Guitarist at WishboneI started with a mojito. A hurricane would have been more fitting, but I did have to go back to class after we finished photographing the band. Lip-smacking good, but a wee bit heavy on the alcohol, this Cuban highball went down smoothly after the first two sips and with the complementary mini cornbread muffins and roll. The server joked that she spiked the mojito, of which I pretended to be an unknowing victim. But it was sweet torture, nevertheless. With Wishbone serving Cajun food, I ordered Hopping Jack. Black beans prepared like red beans and served over rice, garnished with tomatoes, chives, and cheese, it was rather good. Far be it for me to switch into purist mode and compare it to the Hopping Jack that I have had in New Orleans, loaded with Andouille sausage and who knows what else, and well before my jump into vegetarianism, but I am going to say that I was very satisfied and a tad bit slow towards the end. One could blame the alcohol in the mojito but, no, I have a tendency to get a drunken sensation when I eat way too much food. That may explain why I do not drive. Imagine being the poster child for Do no eat to excess and drive.

While getting natural on the Hopping Jack and chasing it with the mojito, the manager stood and chatted with me for a few minutes. I had inquired about the band playing, recalling that there were no bands that entertained the guests in the past. This has become quite a phenomenon in many independent coffee houses, restaurants, and Potbelly sandwich shops, the latter mostly accommodating any disheveled hipster with an acoustic guitar. The manager explained about how there is usually a dedicated band that plays every Wednesday night for a whole month, a band rotating each month. What a novel idea, a brilliant way for local talent to get noticed, and as for jazz bands, a better selection of music to listen to rather than bubblegum music from the satellite radio. The manager and I also talked about ethnic cuisine in Chicago proper, recommended locations for some eateries, and travels domestic and abroad. We also noted how restaurants with close proximity to Chicago’s Loop and downtown tourist haunts tend to pander to the milder palate while those farther away add complete authenticity, that being spices, to the recipes. Regardless, if the jazz bands that they have come to play are as good as the trio that played this night, I shall have to make a few more trips to Wishbone on Wednesday nights before class.

Percussionist at Wishbone

Having gone to Wishbone for brunch primarily, going for dinner was a welcomed change. I will admit that I am still partial towards the breakfast and brunches that they serve. Love the price. Love the food. Could not have asked for better service. Add to all that a talented jazz trio that did not disappoint, this was a moment well spent. Ah, and I shall not forget to add that I ordered a slice of keylime pie, but for take-away. I give in to being a puppet of gluttony enough. I went back to my photography class with a tune in my head, food in my belly, drink putting me in a calm mood, and a note to myself to make a reservation to go to New Orleans soon. That is one city where I am sure to get some photojournalism done before, during, and after I get fed.

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