McFarlain, owner of Cajun Connection in North
Utica, Illinois, holds a piece of alligator he gets
from his native Louisiana.
Ill. — 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 U.S.
Highway 6, Ron McFarlain’s Louisiana roots are carried
on the wind.
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.
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.
to the Midwest.
a constellation of small Illinois towns — Peru, LaSalle,
Utica, Ottawa — 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 creates one of the finest mini-road trips a
Chicagoan can imagine: drive 90 miles southwest, hike for
an afternoon through Starved Rock’s compact canyons,
then fill the belly with Cajun food rooted in McFarlain’s
a kid, it wasn’t nothing to kill a gator and say, ‘Hey,
we’re having fried gator tonight,’" said
McFarlain, 55. "What we killed, we cleaned, cooked
restaurant also is heavy on McFarlain himself. The
affable, gray-goateed Southerner likes to get to know his
customers and banters readily with them in his long drawl.
As I walked in one Wednesday, he sat with four customers
while telling stories before pausing to say to me —
though we’d never met — "I’m having trouble
with this table."
out," he said, turning back to his audience.
"This guy’s a cop." (I’m not.)
point is this: The odds of getting through a meal without
interacting with Cajun Ron are close to zero. But that’s
OK because along with the accordion-laced Cajun hits
churning from the speakers and the walls adorned with
Cajun witticisms, his banter is part of the experience.
I started, I couldn’t sell one piece of gator," he
said. "Back in 1995, they didn’t know nothing about
the swamp here."
customers line up for it. Beyond the frills — the decor,
the music, Ron himself — 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. Though Cajun Connection serves
the classic American macro-brews, McFarlain’s biggest
seller is the brewery’s staple, Abita Amber.
too 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.
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. Ron, to his
credit, offers both.
in the middle of Illinois? How does that happen?
make it," the waitress said. "We make pretty
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 and significant flavor jolt.
we went to an array of main courses. Ron 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.
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).
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 alligators have just
crawled from the swamps. He also drives home every few
months to pick up crawfish, shrimp and soft-shell crabs.
is Louisiana here," he said.
that’s the key to Cajun Connection. Anyone can serve
Cajun food up north and score novelty points. Ron 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.
Connection (897 E. U.S. Highway 6; 815-667-9855;
ronscajunconnection.com) is about 90 miles southwest of
downtown Chicago. In summer, it is open 4-9 p.m. Wednesday
and Thursday, noon-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-6
For an authentic taste of the South, start with boudin and
the massive "Bubba shrimp." If adventurous,
consider the deep-fried corn. Combination platters, which
come with your choice of three, four or five items, make
sampling easy. The jambalaya and alligator are musts (I
prefer the alligator blackened). Also, check out the
"Cajun favorites," particularly the catfish
jambalaya (which explains itself) and the "Jamba
Mess" — fried shrimp, alligator and/or crawfish
mixed in jambalaya with choice of shrimp or alligator. Try
Abita beer, straight out of Louisiana, and the homemade