Driving That Train, High on Beignet

Michael Nagrant / 08.16.18

People often focus on the downside of drinking, like how it makes some people crash their cars into buildings, or how you feel a kinship with death during the morning hangover. However, inebriation also has its delights. There’s the giddiness and belief in all possibility that grips your brain somewhere after the third libation. Drink is also responsible for the glory of the early morning fourth meal, which, as long as there is any decent measure of grease, sugar, and salt involved, tastes like the greatest thing you have ever eaten. There are whole institutions, the $2 slice joint, dirty water hot dogs, and here in Chicago, Flash Taco, that would not exist without liquor-induced palate goggles.

I have long believed that Café du Monde in New Orleans was one of those places. Sober, you are confronted with bitter water served from industrial vats that passes as coffee. The beignets themselves are dense, often greasy, and palatable mostly because they are covered in a Pablo Escobar cocaine-shipment-sized measure of powdered sugar.

I am not trying to malign New Orleans. It is my favorite place on earth that is not Chicago. I have thought many times about moving there. It is one of the best cities on earth for eating, and probably THE best on a dollar for dollar basis. Du Monde however has never been part of that formula for me.

I am reminded of this during dessert at Ina Mae Tavern in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, where I am served a plate of beignets. Yes, they too are adorned with a Scarface-sized mountain of Bolivian marching powder-like sugar, but they are also golden and cloud-light. Ripping them open, a puff of honeyed-steam flares my nostrils, and gossamer threads of pastry part. These are the very best beignets I have ever had. But, I wonder, should they even exist?

The flavor and texture and smell of what is on a plate should be the final and only thing by which food is judged. However, a story, memory, and terroir, often influence our perception too. Outside New Orleans, a beignet should only be a donut, a po’ boy (especially one made without Leidenheimer or Gendusa bread) is a simple submarine. Étouffée is only air-freighted, probably, previously frozen mudbugs, in peanut butter-colored gravy.

And this might explain why Chicago, despite its thousands of restaurants, has never been able to really replicate New Orleans cuisine in any reasonable facsimile. Heaven on Seven has had its moments, but Jimmy Bannos’ food is New Orleans tinged with a heavy Da’ Bears and saah-sidge-accent.

But, then again, the invocation of geography or birthright as gatekeeper can often just be thinly-veiled protectionism. People without souls, much less the soul of a nonna or an abuela, have made very good, if not some of the best, Italian and Mexican food available. I am a native Detroiter who believes that Derrick Tung of Paulie Gee’s in Chicago’s Logan Square and Emily Hyland of Emmy Squared in New York are making some of the very best Detroit-style pizza in America. I’m not arguing that terroir isn’t real, especially with respect to viticulture or agriculture. Cultural appropriation is a real problem we need to address. But at a very basic level, I truly believe you can replicate, improve upon, or even invent a better version of a regional dish or cuisine without being bound by so many mythical strictures.

Chef Brian Jupiter of Ina Mae Tavern was born and raised in New Orleans, so he doesn’t totally prove my point, as he does possess the spirit of the bayou. But he has lived and worked in Chicago for 15 years, and before that he spent time in Miami. Since 2011, he has killed it with his exotic whole animal dinners at West Town’s Frontier. Though transplanted, he is also one of us. He has also done what I did not think possible. He has brought the essence of New Orleans to Chicago.

It’s not just beignets. Jupiter’s po’ boys, served wrapped up in butcher paper, feature a crackling whitebread crust that sops up rich beef gravy debris and fried shrimp drippings. They channel the very best of Parkway, Domilise’s or Liuzza’s by the Track po’ boys. The potato chips served on the side however, and this is the only misstep I really experienced, are soggy and stale. Just give me a bag of Voodoo Zapp’s.

Jupiter’s chargrilled oysters bubble with butter and cheese and a haunting richness, one whiff of which could raise the ghosts from New Orleans’ above-ground sepulchres. I remember watching some food television show years ago where the hipster bon vivant Lee Brothers chargrilled a bunch of oysters for their friends at the back of some giant southern mansion, and wished I’d been invited. Chowing down on these smoky numbers, I felt I’d finally made that party.

I have always believed that a cook’s courage is measured by the darkness of his gumbo roux. By this measure Paul Prudhomme and his Cajun-napalm roux-making technique made him the Joan of Arc of chefs. I always loved the oily deep mahogany or black gumbos that my buddy Bryan Gronowski (a born and raised Chicagoan from Beverly) serves up. But, my adherence to the shade of a roux as a measure of anything is also folly. Jupiter’s gumbo is a shade of milk chocolate, but it is earthy and stuffed with what feels like ten pounds of chicken and silky sausage per square inch.

Fried crawfish, succulent tails flecked with cornmeal, slay. Popeye’s would put KFC out of business if they switched from popcorn shrimp to Jupiter’s popcorn crawfish.

There is also a side dish of crispy fried potatoes dripping with cayenne-spiced aioli flecked with chive ribbons. The crunch oozy mix is the gourmet realization of all the supreme stoner-food aspirations of the Taco Bell cheesy potato taco.

Maybe most importantly, there isn’t a single bead, boob, or mask, anywhere in the décor, just some faux-vintage Dixie beer and Old Grand Dad whiskey murals. The brick walls and honeyed woods channel New Orleans’ Maple Leaf bar or the defunct Uglesich’s, its Jax beer window sign burnished in my memory. The backbar at Ina Mae’s is full of packaged goods for sale including Jup’s hot honey and the signature Ina Mae’s hot sauce which has a lip-smacking vinegary tang.

Ina Mae is pretty much perfect. Except in one way, which is to say, in the future they should really knock out a window in front and establish a 24-hour beignet counter.

Ina Mae Tavern is located at 1415 N. Wood St.