Bar Eats: Escape to New Orleans at Maple Tree Inn

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[Photographs: Josh Conley]

Sitting in the shadows of a hulking train bridge at the very end of a tiny Blue Island street, Maple Tree Inn makes it easy to believe the bayou is just beyond that bridge, and you can almost smell the beignets frying to the tune of Zydeco street music. It is one of those rare places with the power to transport you to a different mindset. So cash in your busybody city chips for a slow, Southern tempo, where "sit long, talk much" is the mantra, and one that's easy to abide by.

Opened in 1975, the menu is the brainchild of self-taught Cajun/Creole chef Charlie Orr (a.k.a. The Walrus), full of classics like jambalaya, etouffe, and gumbo, as well as house favorites like the "Dixie Doorstop" pork chop and hickory-buttered barbecue shrimp. The bar also features 26 taps of craft beer (no macros), vintage bottles, and traditional New Orleans drinks such as hurricanes and zombies.

Now nearly three years since Charlie's passing, his daughter and her partner have spruced the place up a bit, most recently by remodeling the massive, indoor "beer garden" that accommodates far more than the cozy dining area. But Charlie's spirit lives on in the friendly, casual atmosphere, and, of course, in the food.

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A seemingly innocuous-looking bread basket arrives first, and the fresh, warm bread and jalapeno-laced corn muffin are nice enough, but the house-made spread they call lagniappe (a Creole word for a little of this and that) is just dangerous good; the garlic hits from the start, the cilantro is fresh and clean, and the cayenne is like a welcome mint on the pillow of your tongue. Wake up, you're not in Blue Island anymore.

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The jambalaya raw oyster shooter ($3.50) has jambalaya base, cilantro, lime and a shot from the giant tub of house-infused jalapeño vodka you walk past upon entering. Yes, that giant tub sitting like a triple dog dare on the end of the bar; the one you tiptoed past and avoided eye contact with. That one. And for good reason; imagine a pool of Tabasco. Then set that on fire. Add a freshly flown-in raw oyster and chug. The burn actually dissipates pretty quickly, leaving a nice, briny, bloody Mary aftertaste.

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For the crawfish cardinale ($11), crawfish tails are baked in a rich cream sauce with tomatoes, shallots, white wine, and brandy, then finished with bubbling provolone cheese. It is pretty much what I think of when I think Creole—decadent, rich, with seafood that pops with freshness. It is served with toasted bread, which is a worthy vessel to offset some of the heaviness.

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The seafood gumbo ($6.50/$18) has deep layers of flavor (courtesy of a real roux) that lap at your taste buds like the Gulf Coast at low tide. It is peppery without being spicy, has a nice, long finish, and features about anything that swims; a soft-shell crab was in my cup. It's served with a scoop of rice on top.

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The "Dixie Doorstop" pork chop ($24) looks like a meatberg in a sea of jus that run aground on a small jalapeno cornbread dressin' island. A two-plus pound behemoth of a chop, it is stuffed with house-smoked andouille sausage, then braised in beer and vegetables. It is moist, tender, and the smoke from the anduoille actually permeates the chop from within. And that dressin' is moist, with garlic and the ever-present Trinity (onion, celery, green pepper) coming through.

I didn't even mention the curtain. It's the first thing you see when you come in, a red curtain. Open, of course, but it gives you a sense of stepping into a new place. From that, to the bathrooms being wedged between the open-door kitchen and the employee time clock, Maple Tree Inn doesn't make you feel like you are their guest for the evening; it makes you feel like more like a houseguest, with a table always waiting for you. And that feels pretty good.

Maple Tree Inn

13301 Olde Western Avenue, Blue Island, IL 60406 (map)
708-388-3461
mapletreeinnrestaurant.com

Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.

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