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 Hwy. 6, Ron McFarlain's Louisiana roots are carried on the wind.
Steps 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.
Amid a constellation of small Illinois towns, 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 makes for an especially fine road trip from Chicago. Drive 90 miles southwest, hike for an afternoon through Starved Rock's compact canyons, then fill your belly with Cajun food.
WHAT TO EAT
Anyone can serve Cajun food Up North and score novelty points. 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.
The restaurant also is heavy on McFarlain himself. Along with the accordion-laced Cajun hits churning from the speakers and the walls adorned with Cajun witticisms, his friendly banter (in a drawl, of course) 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. 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. Although Cajun Connection serves the classic American macro-brews, McFarlain's biggest seller is the brewery's staple, Abita Amber.
I started with an Abita -- Turbodog, a dark medium-bodied ale that's drinkable enough to cut through the thickness and spice of Cajun food. It arrived with a frosty mug that turned the frothy head to a boozy, icy slush. On this warm day, nothing was ever more right.
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. McFarlain, to his credit, offers both.
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. The balls might have been even more impressive: four plump, lightly breaded orbs encased in just a moderate amount of crisp, which allowed them to remain tender and savory inside. Fatty, salty and delicious, I had two spicy and two plain, the spicy offering a welcome flavor jolt.
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 McFarlain travels to Louisiana each fall to check out the quality of that year's gator haul. The hunks, in the unmistakable shape of alligator tails, come through the rest of the year. On McFarlain's weathered wood tables, the gator arrives so fresh, it's easy to wonder if the critters have just crawled from the swamps. He also drives home every few months to pick up crawfish, shrimp and soft-shell crabs.
"Everything is Louisiana here," he said.
IF YOU GO
Cajun Connection is at 897 E. Hwy. 6, Utica, Ill.; 1-815-667-9855; ronscajunconnection .com. It's open 4-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday.