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Sunday, April 21

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Whether you like your chicken fried or tandoori, Rajun Cajun in Hyde Park can set you up, quick, and usually for under eight bucks. A crazy amalgam of Indian and Soul food (no Cajun food though, as far as I can tell), Rajun Cajun is a perennial favorite of University of Chicago students and local neighborhood residents alike.

I finally convinced a few of my favorite Gapers Block staffers to make the trip way down to Hyde Park to check the place out. They arrived early. "It doesn't take an hour to get to Hyde Park!" Andrew exclaimed. "I'll remember that for the future!"

Andrew, Cinnamon, Alice and I lined up under the neon "Order Here" sign to peer through the glass sneeze guard at the day's selection of food. Andrew ordered the Indian butter chicken combo plate, Cinnamon and Alice both opted for fried chicken meals with different southern side dishes, and I ordered peas and panir over rice and a samosa with spicy sauce. Less than five minutes after we had arrived, we parked ourselves in a booth and started chowing down.

"The Rage Cage," as it's affectionately known to regular patrons, presents an odd juxtaposition of food. Half of the restaurant's cafeteria-style steam tray bubbles with authentic Indian food: butter chicken, samosas, and a variety of veggie side dishes ranging from curried cauliflower to peas and panir. The other half of the steam tray is piled high with southern fried chicken, collard greens, mac 'n' cheese, corn muffins, and other southern soul-food side dishes.

The atmosphere is kitschy on a good day, and a touch seedy on a bad one. The space was quite obviously converted from a Subway a long time ago. It's lit with neon, and decorated with fake plants and thrift store prints. Upbeat Indian dance music pipes through the sound system. I find the atmosphere charming and quirky, but I have a pretty high tolerance for that kind of thing. If you prefer to dine in more flattering light, Rajun Cajun also offers brisk take-out business, or for the truly lazy, home delivery for a $2 fee.

We ate in silence at first, each of us concentrating on maneuvering our plastic sporks and sipping our beverages from styrofoam cups. Eventually, Andrew commented that his butter chicken dish tasted really fresh, with a strong hit of cilantro flavor. His combo meal came with rice, a samosa, a lentil side dish, and a paratha, Indian flatbread. The lentils are just slightly thicker than lentil soup, and had great flavor. Andrew thought the samosa was all right but a little dense. We both agreed that the paratha left something to be desired. Most of the Indian dishes actually benefit from the long, slow simmer they get on the steam tray. The parathas really suffer though, turning soggy and greasy when they sit too long. I told Andrew that I usually substitute a corn muffin for the paratha when I order a combo meal. The staff sometimes laugh at you if you order from both sides of the buffet, but they're happy to make substitutions.

Cinnamon declared that the fried chicken wasn't as good as her mama's. Also, the staff apparently misheard her order, and she ended up with curried great northern beans instead of the black-eyed peas she had ordered, which made for an unexpected, although not entirely unpleasant, cross-cultural meal experience. She found the sweet potato side dish and mango lassi to be just OK, but not great.

Alice finished off her two-piece chicken dinner, collard greens and mac 'n' cheese, and commented that the food was decent and the price is right. She also admired the funky atmosphere and said she could definitely see herself hanging out there if she still lived in Hyde Park.

As for me, I eat here so often I've pretty much fetishized my usual spread -- Where else can you eat vegetarian Indian food with a side of cornbread and orange Fanta? I especially love the cauliflower curry, peas and panir and the potato curry. I especially like that all of the different curry dishes have distinctly unique flavors. It bugs me when Indian food tastes like a bunch of different things cooked in the same sauce, and Rajun Cajun gets it right. I think the food is great, I love that it's family owned and operated, and I get a kick out of the bizarre mish-mash of cultures and flavors.

We hung around long enough for the smell of curry to thoroughly permeate our clothes, talking about being forced to go to therapy as underachieving youngsters (Andrew and me both), freak bike/squirrel interactions (Cinnamon and Andrew), and my irrational fear of running over small birds and animals with my bike. Around the time I uttered, "speaking of horrifying bloody stories..." we realized it was time to call it a night.

Andrew went to look for a restroom, but was turned away un-relieved.

Despite some minor drawbacks, Rajun Cajun remains one of my favorite spots in Hyde Park to grab a quick bite. It's eclectic, unpretentious, cheap and the food is consistently good.

One time I was in there when this super-tough looking guy in a do-rag came in to get fried chicken, except they were all out. "Tan-doori chicken? I don't know, man. OK, sure, gimme some of that."

Rajun Cajun is located at 1459 E. 53rd St. in Hyde Park.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Ruthie Hansen.

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