Something Extra Special

Michael Nagrant / 09.19.06


Etouffée and all the trimmings at Lagniappe

Before it was settled in the nineteenth century, the South Side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham was once flat swampy land. This might explain why some of the best Cajun Creole cooking outside of the arid Louisiana bayou can be found at Lagniappe restaurant on the corner of West 79th and Justine.

Until last year, I’d never been to New Orleans. Before that my only reference point for Cajun cuisine, outside of a box of Zatarain’s, was Heaven on Seven. When I got off the plane, I had hoped to eat at the famed Acme Oyster House, but I had no idea that scoring a table during the jazz festival was like trying to drop in at Charlie Trotter’s unannounced. The line was out the door and the wait was three hours. Saddened, I ambled through the French Quarter and picked the next joint I saw.

The décor was full-on truck-stop diner, full of chipped ceramic mugs and Formica. I waited ten minutes before a waiter brought the menu. The service was like Denny’s at 4am, and frankly I was sure a Grand Slam with its desiccated sausages and meager pancakes would be better than anything that awaited me here.

Then the crawfish étouffée–fat succulent crawfish tails swimming in a thick peanut-butter-colored gravy–arrived. For about the price of a beer at the United Center, I discovered the essential truth of New Orleans–any nondescript dingy shack and lunch counter might just serve one of best meals of your life.

Back in Chicago, I carried the dream of that étouffée with me, secretly pining for the cayenne-flecked buttery heaven of that serendipitous afternoon in New Orleans. A few months after getting back, I caught wind of Lagniappe on the local food board Early visitors had fallen in love with it, but it seemed lately that owner Mary Madison had left the kitchen to her apprentices to tend to her ailing mother. Word was that the quality had fallen off considerably and wasn’t worth the effort.

Then this weekend, serendipity struck again. My wife and I headed down to Roseland at 112th and Michigan, in search of our favorite apple fritter in the city, only to find that the owner was on vacation and the place was locked up.

You know how people say life is a journey, not a destination? Well I believe food is a destination, that the perfect slice or that succulent burger is one of the few opportunities to achieve certainty in life. You should always be in search of these moments. The apple fritter I was in search of is a destination food, one of the best I’ve ever had, and I needed a destination food to replace it.

I recalled that Lagniappe wasn’t too far from Roseland, so I figured I wouldn’t lose anything by rolling by.

My wife and I ordered up crab cakes, fried green tomatoes, a side of red beans and rice, Creole candied sweet potatoes and, of course, crawfish étouffée. When the plates arrived, we tore in. I made my way through pan-seared crab cakes served with remoulade.

Remoulade is like ketchup in New Orleans, a mother sauce found at every shack in the swamp. In Chicago it often ends up tasting and looking a lot like runny Thousand Island dressing with a dash of Tabasco. The remoulade at Lagniappe had a rusty color and earthy roasted tomato taste that was a cross between the classic and a Mexican adobo sauce. The cakes themselves were blackened and crunchy on one side and fluffy and meaty on the other. The green tomatoes, coated in cornmeal, were toothsome wheels of deep-fried goodness, while the cornbread was sweet and moist. The sweet potatoes were perfumed with nutmeg and cinnamon and coated in a bubbling coating reminiscent of fine maple syrup.

I’d saved the étouffée for last. A chocolate-brown swamp of plump crawfish and specks of peppers and onion surrounded an island of white rice. One gulp and that lost afternoon in New Orleans was back. Mary Madison was back in the kitchen. This was destination food.

One caveat, a sign on the restaurant counter warned a minimum of twelve-to-fifteen minutes of waiting time due to the fresh preparation. Because we had skipped breakfast, our twenty-five-minute wait seemed interminable.

The dirty secret of most restaurant cooking is that a lot of the food is already prepped for a quick reheating and a dash of garnish before it’s served to the customer. The reason the food takes so long at Lagniappe is because Madison’s searing off the onion and green pepper, making the roux, and throwing the crawfish only after you place your order. She’s cooking like your mom, but in the back kitchen of a restaurant.

If you waited for your mom’s flaccid green-bean casserole topped with French-fried onions from a can or her chicken breasts bathed in Campbell’s cream of mushroom, then you can surely wait for Madison’s alchemy.

Lagniappe, 1525 West 79th, (773)994-6375

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.