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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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This year, I have found the perfect place to put the "fat" into your Fat Tuesday.

Sure, Mardi Gras is all about drinking your face off and engaging in unspeakable activities. But it's also the time of year to gorge guilt-free on New Orleans-style cooking -- blisteringly spicy gumbo and jambalaya, melt-in your-mouth crab cakes, gigantic muffaletta sandwiches piled high with fresh meats and cheeses, and thick po' boys stuffed full with golden brown fried catfish.

I've had a difficult time finding decent New Orleans-style fare in Chicago; Heaven on Seven and the Dixie Kitchen seem to have a monopoly on the cuisine, but I find the former to be overpriced and the latter to be a bit touristy for my liking. I had heard rumors of a place called The Local Option winning over diners with their crab cakes and jambalaya, but to be honest, I had a better chance of earning a strand of Mardi Gras beads (not a chance in hell) than I did believing that a divey, Lincoln Park college bar could serve up some of the best Cajun food in the city. How wrong I was to underestimate the potential of this scrappy little hole in the wall.

The Local Option is located on the outskirts of the DePaul campus. The owners of the bar used to run a casual restaurant about a block away called The Local Shack, which received a fair amount of praise for its Cajun-inspired menu. More than a year ago, The Local Shack closed, but the owners now offer the same menu at The Local Option. Confused? Don't worry: You won't care to be bothered about the specifics once you try the food.

I have been raving about Local Option's crab cake to anyone and everyone who will listen ever since I ordered it as for an appetizer a few weeks ago. Astoundingly fresh lump crab meat is blended with cilantro, bread crumbs, and spices and formed into a patty, which is then fried golden brown. At other seafood restaurants, I have often been disappointed by the amount of meat in the patty, but Local Option's was impressive. I'm not confident that this delicate cake could hold its own in a sandwich (one of the other menu options), but topped with only fresh cole slaw, a dollup of spicy Creole tartar sauce and a splash of fresh lime juice, you would have to agree it is quite possibly the best crab cake in the entire city. I sincerely regretted not ordering the larger portion (two crab cakes).

Luckily, the shrimp po' boy was enough to entertain me; the sandwich was so overflowing that it was nearly impossible to lift from the plate. Huge slabs of buttery French bread enveloped a pile of shredded romaine lettuce, tomato slices, and several large battered and fried shrimp sprinkled with lemon juice. A dousing a spicy Creole mayonnaise exponentially increased the messiness (not to mention caloric content) of the entire operation. I unfortunately attempted to pick up the sandwich to take a bite and was rewarded by a showering of lettuce and shrimp out through the bottom of the po' boy as mayo dribbled down my chin -- definitely not one of my sexiest moments, indeed. If you happen to be a self-conscious diner, I would recommend eating the sandwich with a fork to minimize contact between grease and your clothes; otherwise, it's best to unabashedly dig right in.

Sadly, the jambalaya (one of the winter specials) was not as stellar as the above offerings. The portion size was generous but instead of the eye-watering spiciness that I expected, the rice and meat mixture had an overpowering smoked flavor (no doubt from the andouville sausage) that was pleasantly aromatic during the first few bites but got tiresome by the end of the meal. The tiny shrimp and the overcooked chicken did nothing to improve the situation. Next time I'll stick to the crab cakes.

While I chose to review The Local Option in celebration of Mardi Gras, the bar is by no means limited to a New Orleans theme. Plenty of menu options -- spinach and mushroom quesadillas, burgers, and clam chowder -- have no connection with the Big Easy. Also, the decent beer selection and multitude of televisions, draw a collegiate crowd that makes The Local Option feel more like a local bar than a Bourbon Street establishment.

But while the atmosphere of The Local Option might be far from authentic, the food is enough to make me return again and again and again. I think I may have to give this place up for Lent.

The Local Option is located at 1102 W. Webster. The staff has assured me that they will be offering plenty of Mardi Gras specials, but they have yet to announce the specifics. For more information, call 773-435-3136 closer to the date (which is February 24, by the way).

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Naz / February 15, 2004 11:33 PM

Damn, that sounds good. I've never really had great cajun or even really authentic cajun before so I can't comment per se but I do think Heaven on Seven is a bit of a rip - not to mention not that good either - so agreed there. I'm excited to try this place out.

Foodlife in Water Tower Place surprisingly has pretty tasty cajun - the only thing I'd eat if ever there.

dan / February 16, 2004 1:38 PM

I gotta add here that the Local Option is one of the few Lincoln Park bar/restaurants where the Logan Square crowd can actually feel welcome. A great selection of music on the stereo (the Postal Service, Pavement, Built to Spill, and Neutral Milk Hotel among others), a laid-back atmosphere, and a good selection of beer.

It can get really packed on Wednesday night for their weekly "Pop-quiz" night. Bring in four of your friends (especially that one friend of yours who knows all the useless, bullshit trivia), slap down $5 a head, and outwit the other teams to win a cool couple hundred bucks. Pretty sweet!

Gordon McAlpin / February 16, 2004 6:27 PM

I could totally kick everybody's ass on pop quiz night.


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