Standing Room Only: Jimmy Bannos Sr.'s Big Easy in the Chase Tower
Chase Tower, 10 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60603 (map); 312-732-6505
The Short Order: Solid Creole and Cajun classics in the back of a corporate cafeteria.
Want Fries with That? Go for the vegetable sides, like the collard greens.
Seats? None are available in the Urban Market, though Chase Tower has some tables inside and outside in the plaza.
List off the usual clichés that plague corporate cafeterias, and the Urban Market in the Chase Tower in the Loop probably has them all covered. From the anonymous name to the windowless underground location that seems to suck the energy right out of you, there doesn't seem to be any reason for non-office workers to venture inside. At least, that used to be the case. Quietly, over the past few months a number of chef-branded stalls have quietly replaced the no-name eateries here, transforming the cafeteria into something that everyone might actually be interested in checking out.
Rick Bayless's Tortas Frontera is definitely the most prominent example, but it's not the only one. In fact, a month before Bayless's spot opened, Jimmy Bannos Sr. set up the Big Easy, even though no one seemed to know about it until Eater broke the news in March. Why would you ignore a new opening by a chef who helped open The Purple Pig, Dough Boys, and, most famously, Heaven on Seven? It's especially puzzling, since Big Easy is basically a quick-service of that latter restaurant, which has been serving up Creole and Cajun cuisine since 1985.
Sadly, Big Easy has approximately zero percent of the charm of its big bother. While Heaven on Seven is located in a raucous and lively room on the seventh floor of the Garland Building, Big Easy is stuck in the back of a space dominated by low slung ceilings and a complete lack of natural light. But what the stand lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in convenience and affordability, making it a solid lunch option for those on the go.
I'd start any meal here with the chicken étouffée($5.00), a bright orange concoction on rice—think the color of sweet and sour chicken—which nonetheless manages to be both satisfyingly rich and spicy. The sauce hides moderately tender hunks of chicken, but the best part by far are the rounds of rich and juicy andouille.
The jambalaya ($5.00) features nice and distinct grains of rice, which is a definite plus. Once again, the andouille shows well, providing the dish with its spicy, meaty base. So, it's too bad that the chicken trends towards dry and stringy. It's still a good dish, and I'd be willing to give it another shot.
While you could easily load up on the entrees, don't overlook the sides. (All the sides are $3.00, though they can be added to an entree for less.) The corn maque choux (top left) is a little buttery, but it has a decent heat, and the corn kernels are nice and sweet. Best in show goes to the collard greens (top right), which have a good meaty backbone, along with a slight touch of sweetness. Though tender, the greens still manage hold their shape. The Hoppin John is kind of bland next to all the aggressive dishes, but it's still comforting. As for the Creole mac and cheese, I'm not the one you should probably ask (there aren't many versions that I like). It's cheesy enough, but I didn't much care for the gritty texture.
All in all, the food isn't quite destination worthy, but that's not really the point. In fact, considering where it came from, the dishes are kind of a minor miracle. Plus, if you can't stand the subterranean surroundings, and it happens to be a nice day, just make for the Chase Tower's sunken plaza, which features commanding views of the Loop and one of the loudest fountains I've ever sat next to. But after a while the rush of water helps block the honking of traffic, and for a minute or two you might be able to forget that you need to go back to work at all.