There’s a spooky ghost sign on the back brick wall at Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods, a faded Dixie Beer logo that figuratively booms “Welcome to the Big Easy” in the overdrawn yat of a voice actor in a New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation promo.
If memory serves, Wicker Park’s old Beachwood Inn never offered the iconic lager of New Orleans, whose brewery was flooded and gutted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then reborn as a contract brewer last year. The Beachwood was more of an Old Style situation.
Since that dive’s demise in 2015, the Pioneer Tavern Group—the folks who offer brotastic diversions for guests of the Pony, Lottie’s, and Frontier—have moved in and installed the veneer of a New Orleans packaged goods store. There’s even a SnoWizard ice shaving machine next to the takeout window behind the bar, to administer to passersby the syrupy, frozen NOLA street treat, with or without a shot.
Those flourishes—along with the Alligator Bob’s brand gator jerky, Café du Monde chicory coffee, and Bigfoot Air Fresheners displayed and available for purchase above the bar—may well come off like a hard tweak on the nose. The good news is that the group’s executive chef is Brian Jupiter, he of the whole roasted gator feasts, who’s embraced the food of the city he was born, fed, and bred in. It’s something he’s been talking about for years, though his menu at Frontier has always been spiced with Cajun-creole references, winking at the south with stuffed peppadew peppers, barbecue shrimp, and char-grilled oysters smothered in creole butter.
Those oysters make the menu at Ina Mae, which is named for Jupiter’s great-grandmother. They’re broad bivalves smothered in molten cayenne-tarragon compound butter, and while you’ll never taste their terroir, they’re hot, gooey gobs of slippery goodness just the same.
There have been plenty of newish restaurants tapping into Chicago’s craving for a Cajun-creole connection beyond the typical Mardi Gras bender. Sure, you’ll find approximations of it at Fifolet, Pearl’s Southern Comfort, Luella’s Southern Kitchen, and the multitude of Viet-Cajun-style boiled seafood feedbag operations. But not since the late, great Analogue has a chef with such deep roots in the culture put it all out there.
A pair of gumbos—the classic ya-ya and the vegetarian z’herbes—are worthy case studies. The latter, a swamp of savory greens mined with tofu, seems a gratuitous sop to plant eaters, but it’s surprisingly satisfying; meanwhile the former comes correct, thickened with okra and a dark chocolate-colored roux swarming with fat shrimp and hidden deposits of potato salad. Eggplant Orleans is another touchstone, if one more rarefied, a stack of lightly fried slices aubergine smothered in a pink-tinged crawfish beurre blanc. Similarly, crab stuffed shrimp pinwheel over a shallow pool of creamed corn, displaying Jupiter’s facility with the food of NOLA’s various class strata, while the dirty rice, its inherent liveriness somewhat restrained, is still on point.
Of course, there are po’boys, divided into classics like oyster, fried shrimp, roast beef debris, and the one-two-punch shrimp-and-beef “peacemaker” as well as novelty varieties like Nashville hot chicken with avocado and collard slaw and fried green tomato with shrimp remoulade. To a one they’re scarfable, but they can suffer in execution—the sandwiches come in three sections, ideal for sharing, but on each occasion I had them the bread hadn’t been sliced all the way through, which led to delicious deposits scattered across the table.
At the heart of the menu is Jupiter’s grandmother’s chicken, buttermilk brined and hard fried, its crackling batter seasoned with Cajun spice, sage, and rosemary, and served with a scant drizzle of chile-spiked honey. The last, along with Jupiter’s hot sauce, giardiniera, and pickled okra, is for sale behind the bar, but I wish it came to the table too, to lubricate the breast meat and the drop biscuit that comes with each order.
Ina Mae also does volume in boiled or fried shellfish (and catfish) by the half pound, expressed most dramatically in a “poor man’s seafood tower,” a heaped ziggurat of deep-fried aquatic creatures, hush puppies, and potatoes bearing enough lipoproteins to deluge the collective bloodstream of three healthy adults.
Advancing a similar agenda is a seven-story doberge cake, a classic always served cold that alternates layers of vanilla sponge with chocolate pudding. Chocolate buttercream and fondant jacket the exterior, while whipped cream and pickled strawberries laser through the richness. The spot-on beignets—warm, pillowy pleasures of fried choux pastry snowed over with confectioner’s sugar—make those cranked out for the tourists at Café du Monde seem like tennis balls.
Oddly, there’s no Dixie Beer behind the bar (that sign, tho), but there is Abita and eight others on tap, as well as a list of cheekily named complications on classic cocktails, like the La Louisianne—a Sazerac lurks in there somewhere amid the Benedictine and vermouth—and the Papa Doble, a full-bodied and pleasantly bitter daiquiri. Good old-fashioned peanuts and Coke are gussied up with cherry cola and Jim Beam rye.
There are no cheap hurricanes, and the Beachwood’s original checkerboard tile floor has never seen so little vomit.
Last January part of the old dive’s roof collapsed during the buildout, but that floor is strong, and it says something about what’s going on at Ina Mae. For all the effort put into the optics, its sturdy foundation is the food of its chef, who once again excels in spite of his surroundings. v