Just 90 miles southwest of Chicago and a mile south of Starved Rock State Park is the village of Utica, population just shy of 1,000. It's home to a single street of shops, including an Amish furniture seller and a scattering of curio stores and bed-and-breakfasts. Even though neighbors in nearby LaSalle-Peru accuse Utica of wanting to become the next Galena, it's a quiet place.
But at the edge of town, just off the highway, is the new home of the Cajun Connection, founded seven years ago on a secret batter recipe and serving some of the best fried alligator and homemade roasted-pecan pie you'll eat north of the bayou. "We're the most authentic Cajun restaurant between the Mississippi and Chicago," claims chef-owner Ron McFarlain proudly. Previously crammed into a building it shared with a bait shop, it moved last September to give McFarlain more room to operate--and to offer more seating to patrons who come from all over the Illinois valley for a taste of Louisiana and a chat with Cajun Ron.
Forty-five-year-old McFarlain was born and bred in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the swamps west of the Atchafalaya basin, the heart of Cajun country and the rumored hideaway of pirate Jean Lafitte. McFarlain headed north to Illinois in 1993. Back home he'd cooked in friends' restaurants, and he quickly found himself cooking at a local motel. Though he's never been trained as a chef, "I've been with this food all my life," he says. "In Louisiana, everyone's raised on this food and learns how to cook it. You go out on the boat and get it, and then you boil it up to order. You eat what you catch."
In 1994 he was cooking at some local fairs and decided to tinker with the batter he was using for frying seafood. "I was using regular beer batter, and I just didn't like it. I started messing around with some ingredients, and I found two products that bring out the flavor when the food is fried without holding too much of the grease. Now I season the food lightly with another seasoning I created before dipping the food in my own special dip-and-dry batter and frying it."
After the batter breakthrough, McFarlain decided to strike out on his own. He opened the original Cajun Connection in 1995, settling next door to the bait shop due to cash constraints. In 1997 he hired manager Amy Martin to run the front of the restaurant, which allowed him to concentrate solely on cooking.
With last year's move, seating capacity increased from 60 to 85, with booths and tables scattered across two rambling rooms. A fish tank in the corner holds some pet crawfish and a couple of lazy catfish to entertain sight-seeing children, but McFarlain eschews many of the party-hearty trappings so often found in Cajun eateries--chandeliers dripping with Mardi Gras beads, tables so loaded with hot sauce bottles that there's barely enough room for the plates--to focus on fresh, authentic backwoods fare.
"We try to keep everything as much as we can like the Cajun way of living," he explains. "Everything is fresh and cooked to order. In Louisiana my family gets together once a month for a live crawfish catch in the swamps. Here I get fresh crawfish, oysters, and shrimp straight off the boat and flown up Fed Ex. We get those big split-tailed Bubba shrimp. You can't hardly find those at other restaurants. Then we take this fresh food and just blanch it. It's not the same as when it's been preboiled."
All of the dishes on the menu are made from McFarlain's own recipes. Fresh Louisiana alligator and shrimp are fried up in the special batter, plus there's gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, and boudin, a traditional stuffed sausage McFarlain makes fresh weekly. He cooks it all up the old-fashioned way in cast-iron pans, which he says help keep food at a consistent temperature, improving the flavor.
Desserts are a highlight, especially the pecan pie. "I make it with special ingredients that keep it from being too sweet and sugary, and we roast the pecans in pieces, not halves, to spread the flavor better." He also serves key lime pie, bread pudding, and, as a special, manager Martin's bananas Foster bread pudding.
McFarlain heads down to Louisiana every two or three months to visit family, stock up for the restaurant, and occasionally do a little gator hunting. "You put a baby nutria rat or other meats, like a turkey leg, on a hook as bait," he explains. "Then you put the hook on a cable and attach the cable to a jug line and tie the rope around a cyprus tree. Then throw the bait into the water where you think the gators are. You take off and come back later and look for your jug. The gator comes along and swallows the meat and then tries to regurgitate it, and the hook gets caught. Once it's caught, you shoot it.
"The biggest gator I ever caught was a ten-footer, over 350 pounds, in 1998. I had him shipped up to the restaurant and cooked him. We boned him, fried him up, and ate him. That gator served a whole lot of people--the tail alone was 12 inches in diameter." Just the memory causes McFarlain to let off a full-throated yelp--the kind, he says, that "any red-blooded Cajun would give when they're happy because they've, say, caught a 50-pound catfish or a 350-pound gator."
The gregarious McFarlain enjoys chatting with customers as often as he can emerge from the kitchen. "I'm a people person, and we try to please as much as we can." Many of the restaurant's fans look forward to an evening of gator, gumbo, and gabbing, says Martin. "People who come here like it when Ron comes out of the kitchen to talk and mingle and make sure that everything's OK. He brings that whole Louisiana atmosphere out to them. He tells his stories about gator hunting, and when he can't come out of the kitchen he'll occasionally do his Cajun call so people will know he's back there. Everyone in Utica and a lot of people in the Illinois valley know Cajun Ron. Customers are disappointed if they come here and Ron doesn't make an appearance."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ Lloyd DeGrane.