Ina Mae’s: A Gulf Oasis in Chicago

The Accidental Midwesterner

I’m of the opinion most establishments hawking Louisiana/New Orleans/Cajun/Creole food are actually just aping it—even in other parts of the South. There’s this seemingly unadulterated belief that it’s all just spice, or specific ingredients, or it’s a variant on other southern cuisine, or that everything starts with a roux (that’s kinda true, but it’s not that simple). It’s not that those beliefs don’t have a kernel of truth to them, but it eliminates the technique, the land, and the traditions that are specific to the region.

For example, I’ve been to quite a number of catfish shacks, barbecue houses, and soul food joints throughout the South. In many of these fine restaurants, I struggle to locate a beer on the menu. This has never been a problem in South Louisiana. The Catholic influence of French and Spanish colonialism left its imprint on the early territory, and the later-day influx of Irish and Italian immigrants—not to mention the Afro-Caribbean migration and the subsequent sugar cane/rum pipeline—did nothing to disparage this love of alcoholic beverage. You’ll probably never find beer used to cook jambalaya in Alabama or Georgia unless the chef comes from Louisiana, where it’s been known to add a little of one’s favorite brew into the pot after knocking a few back. Bananas Foster could never have been invented in Mississippi because of the bourbon; not because they don’t drink bourbon in Mississippi, but because of its culturally hidden indulgence and prohibition by Protestant sects that took hold. So one can be forgiven if they would be skeptical of a restaurant espousing the joys of South Louisiana cooking in a city on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Ina Mae Tavern and Packaged Goods sits far geographically and culturally from its inspiration. Tucked slightly off the thoroughfare of Milwaukee Avenue which cuts diagonally through Chicago’s trending Wicker Park, it probably makes due with the fact that hipsters and influencers love street food—they just don’t always make the holistic connection to its origin. In fairness, food explorers are doing these establishments a favor by frequenting them, snapping and sharing on Instagram, and in general broadening the curious palate of American cuisines. It’s just slightly disappointing the dive is often shallow, and there’s no adventurous swim into the opaque depths of the food, its origin, or its evolution.

I didn’t know what to think on the day in March of this year when we walked in for the first time. I just wanted some connection back to New Orleans, to the place my fiancée and I met, to gain some strength and courage in the moments before I asked for her hand, persuading her to jump into the deep forever with me. The exposed brick walls inside resembled the beige-gray shade of cypress, the mist outside not unlike the humid tears of a bayou spring. I remember the chicken and waffles were replaced with pancakes, but their soft fluffiness beautifully countered the crisp bite of the yardbird. Our server chatted with us, regaling the story of Ina Mae—named after the chef’s grandmother back in his native Louisiana—as I noted my own New Orleans roots. We left with some beignets, provided on the house with the bill. They somehow made it back home though the dampness, surviving my bending of the knee, and provided a nice sustenance for the drink that flowed upon our surprise announcement later that evening to friends who had gathered at our place.

The second time—only a few days ago—was no less spontaneous. Dili and I finding ourselves with a houseguest for a weekend is alway a reason to explore the vastness of Chicago but usually it involves the culinary delights native to our city, or a place we haven’t explored before. But both of us and our friend Denise have a fondness for Louisiana cuisine; in fact, all three of us first met at different times in our lives in New Orleans. So the original plan was scrapped and into Wicker Park we schlepped in search of crawfish and cocktails.

There is a calming effect that comes over me when I sit in front of a menu with descriptions of Gulf seafood and drinks. A certain pretentiousness—rising from an expansive palate or evolved dining experience—leaves me, allowing for the escape back to simple dinners on docks next to brackish waters or thick humidity necessitating beer after beer in the New Orleans summer. I didn’t know it would happen here in this place so far from South Louisiana, in this neighborhood so diametrically different. But the stories of the heart so bound to memory exist not only in those who seek this food, but in those who prepare it—and in this regard, we were in good hands. Brian Jupiter, the executive chef, took those memories of times with his grandmother and made it into not only his restaurant’s namesake, but an oasis of culture to count on in Chicago winters and yes, even in the less-humid summers.

Of course, there’s not a complete lack of Chicago influence, as the Cajun Elotes gives a nod to Chicago’s Hispanic culture. These must prove quite popular since they were unavailable on the day we visited, so into the mains we dove. The fried Gulf shrimp were breaded perfectly, crispy with an almost panko-like batter and flavor that actually made me glad I had eschewed the po-boy version (though my friend across from me had no complaints about hers). I’m still quite amazed at the plumpness of shrimp we can get here, as if Lake Michigan somehow had a secret portal to the Louisiana coast. The tartar and cocktail sauce, homemade no doubt, were excellent—though the tartar sauce resembled more an aioli than what I would see at a fish-and-chip shop. The sides of coleslaw and potato salad were surprising, given that both utilized a mayonnaise base that normally renders the slaw limp and the potato heavy. However, in the hands of Jupiter’s kitchen, my only real complaint was that there wasn’t more of each on the platter. My fiancée did not seem to have this issue, as her fried chicken—which she had not indulged in on that first visit when I tore through the chicken and pancakes—was almost too much for her. It exuded a crispness reminiscent of home, but with a hint of spice buried into the hot honey coating the batter of the bird.

We sat there at that tall wooden table as the sun set on our Labor Day weekend and, here in the Midwest, very soon our summer. Yet, in that restaurant born out of traditions passed down generations ago and many miles away, there’s always the memory of damp humidity, the smell of salt water, and a beer made to quench the unenviable thirst. As I finished my pint, I noticed a sign for Thursday Night Bingo. “All-you-can-eat fried chicken” it read, with $5 pints of Spiteful Brewing’s house ale to boot. As if we needed more incentive to come back again.

Ina Mae Tavern and Packaged Goods, 1415 N Wood St, Chicago. http://www.inamaetavern.com