The South in Your Mouth

Michael Nagrant / 11.24.17
Garrett Sweet / The Delta

Well my home’s in the delta,
Way out on that farmer’s road.
Now you know I’m living in Chicago,
And people, I sure do hate to go.

-Muddy Waters, My Home is in the Delta

That lyric from Waters is a bit of an idle threat. It was recorded in 1963 at Chicago’s Tel Mar recording studios for one of the greatest records of all time, “Folksinger”. But, Muddy stayed in Chicagoland, dying in his Westmont, Illinois home in 1983.

Still, if you sit in the dark and really listen to that recording, Muddy is in the room. You can hear his breath, the squeak of his fretted strings, and the air in the studio. You have no doubt his heart has split from homesickness. You can’t blame Muddy. If you’ve ever been to the delta, an area which legend says originates in Memphis’s Peabody Hotel and stretches to catfish row in Vicksburg, Mississippi, you too will would be overcome, smitten by the greasy music, the fantastic characters, and the comforting food.

Eldridge Williams, owner of The Delta, a new Wicker Park restaurant specializing in the cuisine and soul of the delta, knows that feeling all too well. Raised in Mississippi, but working in restaurants in Chicago, he longed for the tamales of his Memphis youth.  “I remember I was 5 or 6 years old, my dad worked for El Terrifico tamales. He’d take me to work where he’d box the them up. I’d sit on conveyor and eat them warm,” said Williams.

Williams grabbed his future chef Adam Wendt and some business partners, jumped in a Ford Expedition and toured the delta with his crew. Inspired, they came back to Chicago to open the restaurant.

Wendt knew tamales would be the foundation of the menu, so he experimented with recipes before they took the trip.  “They were all wrong. When we were traveling, we tasted a ton of them. We asked people how they made, them, discovering that they’re not steamed, but stewed in spicy tomato broth. But no one would really tell us their secrets, so I had to taste and figure it out,” said Wendt.

After cooking “about 75-100 batches” Wendt figured it out.  “I tasted it and I knew. The funny thing is he [Wendt] won’t tell me the recipe,” said Williams. It feels right that their origin remains a mystery. They’re ethereal. Unlike many of the gritty masa-based Mexican tamales moldering away in the tamale guy’s red Igloo cooler that drunken you has probably tasted, Wendt’s are airy filled with “cush” which is not a California strain of weed, but highly seasoned corn meal.

They’re overflowing with silky lamb and beef, topped nacho style with spicy giardinara, and drizzled with D.A.F sauce, an elixir Wendt describes as “slutty” but which is like creamy Thousand Island dressing.  This plate is called the Jim Shoe ($11) an upscale homage to a native southside Chicago sandwich. You can get the tamales prepared many other ways, but the shoe was my jam.

Speaking of D.A.F, if you hadn’t figured it out, that’s a shortened version the phrase delta as f*ck.  “You see an old guy in a rocking chair on his porch drinking sweet tea, or a beat up old pickup in the south and people say that’s D.A.F.  It’s an attitude,” said Williams

That attitude pervades the space in a wall adorned with photos, tufted cotton plants, and Mason Jars stuffed with flickering candles. Near the bar, there’s thrift store salvaged letters tricked out with thick light bulbs spelling out D.A.F.. Copper panels adorn the kitchen pass and glazed ceramic tiles hang on the wall while a group of pig figurines-pigurines, hold court. It’s a maelstrom of antebellum mansion finery and junkyard-chic.

Something about the place makes you want to get down, down deep in the bowl of thick braised greens wafting heady spice, greens that flare your nostrils with a vinegar tang ($8).

If that brew doesn’t do it, then a couple of Rock’s Red Light cocktails ($11), a bitter sweet mix of Campari and rum lightened by bracing mint will do the trick. And if you still need to loosen up, there’s a selection of “vases” or large format cocktails served in thrift store-salvaged flower vases, the brainchild of partner Adam Kamin. As you look around the room, you’ll see people Lady in the Tramping it, staring deeply in to each other’s eyes while sucking from the pair of straws protruding from the huge glass bowl.

Speaking of tang, there is the burger ($15). I’m worried you may think of me as Chicken Little, because recently, I declared the Flip burger one of Chicago’s best. Well, The Delta’s is also one of Chicago’s best. It is better than Flip’s burger. Made from 40 day dry aged beef, it’s so rich and funky, it tastes like someone stuffed a whole lobe of seared foie gras in the middle.

Generally Memphis-style ribs are dry rubbed so heavily, you feel like you’re eating kitty litter. While Wendt dry rubs and brines his babybacks ($16), he smokes and braises them, and finishes them on the grill until they glisten with a sherry caramel and the blazing bite of paprika and chili powder.

Fried chicken ($16) is a whole bird, sous vide cooked so the interior is super juicy, fried to a mahogany brown, and sprinkled with fat flaky salt crystals. The crust is fried a little too hard to my liking, but if you like thick double or triple dredged flour-coated fried birds, you’ll be alright with this.

Not everything here is heavy. The catfish bursting with coriander and glistening in lemon butter is cloud-light. It’s sourced from a third-generation catfish farmer who Williams and Wendt found via a woman they met at a bar on their research trip.

The only thing that doesn’t really work is dessert. Beignets are mushy and topped with peach preserves. A cobbler has an undercooked crust. Both of them are S.A.F, soggy as…well you know what I mean.

Review: The Delta

1745 W. North Ave.; 773.360.1793

Rating: ** Two stars

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.