Chicago is kin to the south. No other U.S. city has more ties to the lower half of the country, specifically the Mississippi Delta, aka the Most Southern Place on Earth. All you have to do is spend ten minutes in the presence of Yoland Cannon to understand this. On the 900 block of North Laramie, Cannon is the Tamale Guy. No one talks about Claudio. Most afternoons, weather permitting, he sells Mississippi Delta-style tamales from a yellow cart parked on the sidewalk: ground-beef-stuffed cornmeal magic wrapped in husks and simmered in an oily, peppery brew that delivers the same immediate sensory impact as a shot of whiskey. Many of his customers grew up eating them in Mississippi towns such as Greenville, Leland, and Vicksburg.
Eldridge Williams also comes from the Delta—the very tip of it, actually, in Memphis. He's opened a small Wicker Park barstaurant in tribute to the region called, appropriately enough, the Delta. Williams, a front-of-house veteran (formerly of Girl & the Goat and numerous other spots), is very likely Cannon's only local competition. He and chef Adam Wendt, late of Dusek's, Salero, and Bangers & Lace, are offering a menu that centers on the Mississippi Delta red hot tamale. (Not "tamal." This isn't Spanish.)
Wendt has fairly faithfully re-created and upgraded the iconic original snack using ground beef brisket enrobed in soft "cush," aka cornmeal grits, saturated with a simmered tomato brew spiked with chile and garlic. These come in bundles of three, with saltines on the side to take advantage of their spreadability. If Williams and Wendt had stopped right there, they'd have sold me. But a young restaurant doesn't grow on nostalgia alone. There are also a series of cheffed-up variations on the Delta tamale, from vegan red hots made with mushrooms to braised chicken thigh tamales dribbled with off-the-cob elotes and grilled shishito peppers to a Mediterranean-tinged tamale with lamb merguez overwhelmed by feta cheese, pickled onions, spicy green harissa sauce, and crispy fried chickpeas. (Is that a tamale or an international incident?)
Actually, there are two tamale constructions on Wendt's menu that are even more controversial, with the potential to raise the hackles of aficionados of the endemic foods of the south—south side, that is. The tenuous connection between Delta tamales and mass-produced local commercial brands such as Tom Tom is best illustrated with the infamous mother-in-law sandwich, commonly a Chicago-style tamale (likely a Tom Tom) cradled in a hot dog bun smothered in chili, as executed by Bridgeport's Johnnie O's, the mother-in-law's ambassador to the world thanks to an appearance on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. The law of the mother-in-law allows for slight variations, yet I think Wendt's decision to entomb a deep-fried tamale in a blimpy Mexican bolillo under an avalanche of Chicago dog toppings seriously violates it. Along with the absence of the critical lubricative properties of chili, this dense, dry carb bomb is tough to swallow.
On the other hand, his version of the Jim Shoe—the slightly more obscure south-side sub-shop specialty involving a chopped and griddled hash of corned and roast beef, gyro meat, onions, and cheese plastered into a sub roll with iceberg lettuce and pink tomato, then pumped with "GUY-ro" sauce and mayo or mustard—is a redemption of something that very frequently manifests as a sloppy disaster of a sandwich. Wendt uses an improbable combination of lamb and beef tamales as the platform, piling them with smoky caramelized chunks of house-made pastrami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, giardiniera, piquillo peppers, and "d.a.f." ("Delta as fuck") sauce, a house blend of Thousand Island and spicy remoulade. It's a mess, but a delicious and beautiful one.
The remainder of the menu dabbles in generalized southern standards, many of them deep-fried. During my visits the small, open kitchen near the rear of the dining room wasn't on its best fry game. Hush puppies, served with a Pepto-pink red-onion aioli, were sodden with oil though crunchy and scarfable. The breaded armor on fried green tomatoes shattered at a touch. A fried half chicken arrived at the table one evening bleeding raw batter under its crispy skin. The house remedied this situation with a freshly fried bird, but the amount of frying medium that left the kitchen that evening required a thorough post prandial hosing off.
On the other hand, fried chicken-liver rice with mushroom and bacon is less a tribute to southern-style dirty rice than it is to Chinese fried rice, but either way, you'll want it. Vinegary braised greens stand out with a dose of nduja, and paprika-caramel-glazed baby back ribs are a diverting but enjoyable mandibular exercise. The best thing on the Delta's menu is a sleeper: a whole grilled catfish smothered in a rich-bodied beurre monte sauce powered with lemon and chicken stock and seasoned with chiles and coriander, all of which marries perfectly with the fatty white flesh.
Beignets and a cumulus banana pudding, short on banana and containing enough undissolved granulated white sugar to embarrass Paula Deen, made up the limited dessert menu (the latter has since been 86'd). There's also a potent rum-amaretto-orgeat liquid finish by beverage director Adam Kamin, who's also responsible for a lineup of icy smashes that are complex and restrained in sweetness, such as the herbaceous Fernet Me Now and the intoxicating Lorraine, with absinthe and sherry.
Chicago's affinity for the south results in a restaurant scene awash in (with notable exceptions) kitschy, unconvincing adaptations of regionally unspecific food. I won't say the Delta is any more faithful to its inspiration, but the cozy space has a vibe: a young, diverse staff and crowd that keeps things as loose as the menu. While it needs some executional adjustments, the Delta's a fun interpretation of the food of Chicago's southern cousins. v