A bent and rusted Coca-Cola sign hangs on the unevenly plastered white wall at Jambalaya, the Wicker Park po'boy shop. "I tore that off the side of a closed, run-down old country store near my hometown," says owner Craig Cameron, who hails from Waveland, Mississippi, 35 miles east of New Orleans near the Louisiana border. On another wall is a framed poster from the 2001 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and in the center of the small room a black pole supports two street signs marking the fictitious intersection of Bourbon and Tchoupitoulas streets. "I thought if anyone could pronounce Tchoupitoulas, they'd get a free sandwich," Cameron jokes, although he's since revoked the offer.
The 33-year-old moved to Chicago in 1993 to help out his ailing father, who'd lived here since the mid-70s. Previously studying biology at the University of Florida, Cameron transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago to finish his degree. He'd been planning to go to med school, but he didn't get any further than taking the entrance exam before his side job as a project manager at Sprint PCS lured him into the telecommunications industry. In 2000 he started a business that built cell towers for phone companies.
Meanwhile, he was realizing that good Cajun food was scarce in Chicago. "I've yet to find a place that makes it the way my grandma did," says Cameron. He loves Turkish, Greek, and Italian food (especially pizza)--all abundant here. But when it came to his native cuisine, he resorted to cooking his own rather than eat at places that just didn't get it right.
By 2001, with telecom in a slump and his business feeling the pinch, Cameron began to think about starting a restaurant. His brother Darrell, who'd also relocated to Chicago, lured a hometown friend who's a trained chef to join them in opening an upscale Creole kitchen. The plan faltered when the friend proved unreliable and the location, near Division and Damen, fell through.
The brothers looked for a smaller space. "I thought, you know, a sandwich shop is a good place to start," says Craig. In February 2002 they signed a lease on what used to be the Beat Parlor record store, on Damen just south of Wabansia. After waiting nine months for a building permit, they quickly built a working kitchen and dining room, furnishing it with fewer than a dozen tables and only a chalkboard menu. Jambalaya opened in January.
Like the artifacts that adorn the place, all the ingredients come straight from New Orleans. "My friend's dad is a seafood distributor at home, and he ships up the products three or four times per week," says Craig. Appetizers, all made from scratch, include Cajun popcorn (battered and fried crayfish tails); seafood gumbo, chock-full of fish and vegetables and thickened with a traditional roux; and of course jambalaya, in a rendition that's more like paella than the soupy versions often seen, with lots of andouille sausage and chicken. "Some people around here find it dry, but this is the real way to make it," says Craig.
A couple of deep-fried oddities--dill pickles and artichoke hearts--are dipped in a homemade mixture of flour and seasonings, a recipe the brothers won't reveal. The hush puppies, made from another secret blend, are some of the best outside of NOLA. "Those are all my grandma's recipes," says Craig, admitting that he and Darrell called her regularly as they were creating the menu. "She doesn't have anything written down, but if I ask her, even though it takes a while, she can remember what goes into what."
The array of po'boys is astounding: oyster, crayfish, trout, soft-shell crab, alligator, shrimp, catfish, and crabmeat. They come on toasted French bread with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes at prices ranging from $5 to $8.50 for an 8-inch sandwich and $6 to $10.95 for a 12-inch. Seafood platters are also offered, served with coleslaw, mashed potatoes, hush puppies, and bread. In mid-February Jambalaya did a seafood boil: shrimp, corn, and potatoes cooked in the traditional spicy broth. In the south the famous dish is poured out of the pot directly onto a newspaper-covered table; the Camerons served their shrimp boil on plates. Craig says they want to offer more boils, but they'll wait until something else--oysters, crayfish--is in high season: "Right now, we just have to get the business steady before we expand."
But with hours that run late into the night--until 2 on weekends--and a location near plenty of bars and clubs, Jambalaya might not need to offer anything but their staple sandwich. Says Craig, "The po'boy shops at home are always the best stop after a late night."
Jamabalaya is at 1653 N. Damen, 773-289-3678.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.