Outside of the small north central Illinois town of Utica, IL is a little restaurant in an old converted farmhouse that was once a gas station and then a bar - the Cajun Connection. It's just off Interstate 80 at the Utica (Exit 81) exit. You go south to the first crossroad off the Interstate - Highway 6 - and go east for about a mile. You'll see Cajun Connection on the north side of the road. (see map)
Actually, we had been to Cajun Connection once before, a number of years ago. About 13 years ago, a co-worker of Cindy's had told her that we needed to make the 95 mile drive from our house to go try the Cajun Connection. We did and came away not too enamored with the place. They didn't have much as far as Cajun food other than a lot of fried shrimp, alligator, chicken strips and other items. It never crossed my mind to try the place again until I was driving across Illinois one rainy fall evening and I was getting hungry. I thought about stopping into Duffy's Tavern in Utica to get one of their good burgers. But when I got off the Interstate at Utica, I remembered the Cajun Connection. I took a left at Highway 6 instead of going straight into Utica.
The man behind the Cajun Connection is Lake Charles, LA native Ron McFarlain. McFarlain started out as a pipefitter and traveled around the nation with his crew. While out on the road, Ron - who learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother - would work up some of his Cajun specialties for his workmates. Wanting to get off the road and settle down, he ended up in - of all places - LaSalle County in north central Illinois in the mid-90's. Seeing that there wasn't a Cajun restaurant for 100 miles in either direction between the Quad Cities and Chicago, Ron opened the Cajun Connection in November of 1995.
At right - Ron McFarlain holding an alligator tail in the kitchen at Cajun Connection.
Ron McFarlain takes trips back to Louisiana to get Cajun staples such as fresh crawfish, alligator and shrimp. The Cajun Connection is famous for their annual crawfish boil and for their blackened alligator bites.
McFarlain is sort of a character known to many people in the area. In fact, many of the locals and regulars just refer to the Cajun Connection as "Ron's" and McFarlian as "Cajun Ron". McFarlain is always interacting with his customers - whether they're regulars or first-timers. It's his down-home Cajun-friendly style that makes him an immediately likable guy.
It was around 7:30 when I pulled into the parking lot at Cajun Connection. I was sort of confused because I didn't quite remember this building as the one we were at years ago and when I went in, I was even more confused. I didn't remember one thing about this place. It turns out that I hadn't been in THIS incarnation of Cajun Connection. When McFarlain opened the Cajun Connection in 1995, it was housed in a small building at the corner of Illinois Route 178 and U.S. Highway 6. In 2001, he moved down the highway to the east to what was the former Lone Tree Inn, a former bar, and before that, a gas station. It gave him more room in his kitchen and more seats for his diners. And because he had more room in his kitchen, it allowed him to expand his menu with more Cajun-inspired fare.
The manager of the Cajun Connection, Amy Martin (who is Cajun Ron's better half) greeted me as I walked in and took me over to a table in the corner of the front room of the restaurant. Another waitress came over and asked if I wanted anything to drink. Being a true Cajun restaurant, I saw that they had Abita beer from Louisiana. When I asked which styles of Abita they had, she pulled out a list and it turned out they had about four or five different varieties. I ordered up an Abita Golden, a beer I hadn't had in a long time.
The Cajun Connection has three dining rooms, all of them not too big. There are a combination of booths and tables throughout the place - some booths offering bench seats and chairs. A number of Cajun signs and witticisms were splayed upon the walls. A juke box near the cash register had a number of Cajun tunes on it, but the background music playing that evening was - interestingly enough - 70's classic rock.
The menu at Cajun Connection is much larger than the last time we were there. The first time we went to Cajun Connection they didn't have jambalaya or gumbo on the menu. This time, they had a plethora of Cajun foods to choose from, as well as blackened steaks, pork chops (the special that night), and chicken tenders.
My head was spinning from the selections on them menu. Po-boy sandwiches, blackened shrimp, alligator scampi, crawfish etoufee - I couldn't make up my mind. Something called Jamba-2-Fay - shrimp or crawfish etoufee served over jambalaya and paired with either fried alligator or grilled shrimp - got my attention. As did the blackened ribeye steak served with jambalaya. The great thing about my first visit to Cajun Connection in years is that they have a "make-your-own" combination platter. You can choose between 2, 3 or 4 items such as shrimp creole, crawfish etoufee, boudin sausage links, catfish, oysters or another nearly dozen items for your combo entree. I wanted to do that, so I ordered up the jambalaya, red beans and rice, and the "bubba" shrimp, blackened. I also got a cup of the gumbo.
The waitress brought out the gumbo with a small basket of fresh French bread slices and crackers. From the first taste I wished I would have upped it to a bowl. It was just fabulous gumbo. It wasn't spicy in the least, but there were nice smoked boudin sausage slices, shredded chicken and pork chunks in the somewhat thick roux broth. I spiced it up with some hot sauces that were on the table to give it a little kick. It was some of the best gumbo I'd had in a restaurant. And it also reminded me that it was time to make some of my own gumbo at home.
While I was enjoying my gumbo, Ron McFarlain came out to the dining room to hob-nob with the patrons. Three guys who were seated at a table next to me caught a ration of good-natured shit from him. "Boys, boys, boys," Ron yelled in his Cajun drawl. "I know y'all haven't been here before, so let me tell you our rules. You order, you eat, you pay, you get the hell out! What the heck y'all doin' on your cellphones? Eat up!"
He came over to me and asked, "How's the gumbo, big guy?"
"Killer," I replied. "I could eat this all night."
He fist bumped me and said, "That's good to hear!"
Almost as soon as I finished up my gumbo, the waitress brought out my combo plate. Left to right across the plate was the red beans and rice, the jambalaya and the blackened "bubba" shrimp that featured three large shrimps on a skewer on a bed of white rice. A small container of Cajun Connection's "voodoo sauce" sat on the side. It had worcestershire sauce, butter and mild Cajun spices in it.
I tried the jambalaya first and I have to say that I wasn't too impressed with it. It was sort of bland. Even with copious amounts of Tabasco and some of Cajun Connection's "Hot Damn!" seasoning, it didn't liven it up. It did have some nice smoky tasting slices of boudin sausage, though.
Going on to the red beans and rice, well, they more than made up for the disappointment of the jambalaya. With more smoked boudin sausage with the beans and rice, there was a nice sort of sweet taste to the combination. I immediately liked the taste of the red beans and rice. It was much better than the jambalaya.
But the best thing on the plate was the blackened "bubba" shrimp. It was covered with a generous amount of homemade Cajun seasonings. Even without dipping them into the voodoo sauce, the taste was just excellent. And I took some of the leftover voodoo sauce and poured it over the white rice and it was just fabulous. Even with the bland jambalaya, it was a very good meal.
My waitress came over and asked if I wanted any dessert. "Key lime pie? Pecan pie? Bread pudding," she kept asking me. It all sounded good, but I was stuffed. Then she said, "We have pumpkin bread pudding." Oh man! I about pulled the trigger on that. I just asked for my check.
I told you this entry was going to be fun and this is where it happened.
I was looking at an article in a frame on the wall of the dining room I was in and Ron McFarlain came over to me and said, "You've never been in here before, buddy?" He introduced himself and I did the same back.
"Well, actually, I was here a long time ago," I replied. "But I don't remember it being like this. How long have you been here?"
"11 years," he said. "But we've been in business since 1995. We were in a small building down on the corner."
"Aha," I exclaimed. "That's why I don't remember this building. We were in the old place."
I said, "I seem to remember that you only had fried food."
Ron said, "Yeah, when we first opened up we didn't think the people around here would like the gumbo or jambalaya. We kept it simple. But we started to do other things and when we moved over here we started to do more things. We just added some more things to the menu."
He asked me what I had and I told him. He said, "How'd ya like the jambalaya?"
I said, "Quite honestly, I found it to be kind of bland."
Ron said, "Well, we make it that way. A lot of real Cajun restaurants down in Looz-ee-anna don't make their food all that spicy. I'm all about the taste of the ingredients, the smoked sausage and the cooked in flavor."
While he was talking, I got out my phone to take a picture of the dining area. He said, "Well, shoot, buddy. You want some pictures. C'mon back here with me." He guided me back toward the kitchen area. Before we went into the kitchen he introduced me to Amy and he asked, "You ever have bread pudding before?"
I said, "Oh, I sure have."
He said, "No, you haven't. Have you ever had key lime pie before?"
I said, "Oh, yeah."
Ron replied, "No, you haven't. You haven't because you haven't had our bread pudding or key lime pie. Amy makes the bread pudding and key lime pie, I make the pecan pie. It's the best, son."
We went back into the kitchen and I was amazed to find six young guys back there all doing different things. There were two line cooks, a couple of prep cooks, and one guy who was cooking up a big pan of chopped pork for the gumbo. I had never thought of using chopped pork for my gumbo. Ron said, "Looky here. He's simmerin' the pork with liquid smoke and our homemade spices." He pulled a couple pieces of the pork out of the pan (he had cooks gloves on) and handed me one. The spices got my attention.
"I thought you said you don't cook anything spicy," I said to him after eating the chunk of pork.
He said, "The spices cook down during the simmering process and when we finally put it in with the gumbo."
I asked him how often he makes gumbo and he took me back around the corner to a round cooker on a counter top. He said, "We made this yesterday and just let it simmer until we need to make more." He opened the lid and said, "We'll need to make more tomorrow." The cooker basin was about a 1/3 full.
Ron said, "Hold on a second." Every sentence he ended it with my name. It was kind of a funny, yet folksy Southern thing. He went back into the cooler and he came out with this humongous alligator tail. It's the same one that is in the picture of Ron earlier in this entry. I said, "How do you get alligator all the way up here?"
He said, "It ain't easy. I've been goin' down for years and gettin' it from the guys on the docks. But they've been a little more protective of their alligator meat down there. So, it's costin' me a little more and with the price of gas to get down there and back..." He sort of hesitated and said, "Yeah, it's tough."
Ron gave me a pair of cooks gloves and he handed me the alligator tail. After positioning the tail just right - "You gotta hold it right so I can take your picture," he explained - he told me to act like I was taking a bite out of the tail. He took two or three pictures of me with the alligator.
He asked, "Did you try the alligator?"
I told him, "Not this time. I had the fried alligator on my first trip years ago, but it tasted like chicken."
Ron gave me a stern look and said, "My fried alligator doesn't taste like chicken. It's better than chicken." I told him that the next time I wanted to try some of the blackened alligator. I told him, "If it's anything like the "bubba" shrimp, it's got to be fantastic."
I asked him what seasoning he uses and he should me a pan of mixed Cajun spices. He held it up for me to smell and it was all I could do to stop from licking my finger and sticking it in the mixture. It smelled like Cajun heaven.
He said, "You didn't have the pork chop special tonight, did you? Shame on you." He showed me the pork chops they were using for the special that evening. "We cut 'em thin so they'll cook quick. We roll 'em in the spices and grill 'em up. Hoo boy!"
Ron was like a little kid showing off all the toys he got at Christmas time. "Hey, come on back here." He led me back to the cooler and started to root around on the shelves. He pulled out a pan of sausages and he said, "We smoke our own sausage here."
I asked him where his smoker was and he said, "Oh, we just smoke 'em in the oven. You can do that, you know." Actually, no I guess I didn't. He took a sausage link and broke it in half to show me the texture of the sausage. When I asked him about andouille sausage he said, "We found that's too spicy for most people around here. We do the boudin sausage with a more mellow and smoky flavor."
I asked him if that was why his jambalaya was sort of bland and he said, "You must like spicy foods. Yeah, that's one of the reasons why. But I like the flavor of the ingredients and not the hot taste." Just like he said before.
When I told him that I really like his red beans and rice, he asked, "What did you like about them?" I told him I liked the sweetness. "Oh, man, we didn't make 'em right." I was sort of taken aback by that as I thought they were outstanding. "We do sweeten 'em up, but they need to cook long enough to get the sweetness out." I told him I thought they were damn fine, as is.
I must have spent about 20 minutes back in the kitchen area with Ron as I picked his brain about Cajun food, his techniques, some of his specialties and what has worked and not worked in his restaurant. Now, he didn't know me from Adam. I could have been a spy for another restaurant, I could have been a health inspector, I could have been anybody looking for free samples. But I got to thinking afterward that I'm guessing he's done that before with a number of people.
The Cajun Connection's hours are kind of funky - they're open 4-9 on Thursday thru Saturday, and 12-6 on Sundays. Ron told me that they'll open at noon on Saturdays in the summertime. I noticed that they had a little patio off to the side and I asked him if they do outdoor dining. He said, "Naw, that's more of an overflow area for us in the summer months. It can get pretty busy in the summer, but slacks off pretty good in the winter months. You think we're crowded in the kitchen now, you should see how many people we got hoppin' back there in the summer."
Like I said, this was a fun visit. The food was great, Ron was a wonderful host and I have to get back to try other things on the menu. I wonder if my wife would be up for a Sunday afternoon trip to Cajun Connection at some point? Like Ron told me, "Just call ahead and see if we're here!"