The Gift of Gumbo: Lagniappe brings spicy Cajun cuisine to 79th Street

“Lagniappe” is a Louisiana French term for a small gift that a merchant includes with a customer’s purchase. It’s also the name of a restaurant on the corner of 79th and Justine, which in some ways seems like a gift to the South Side of Chicago, as well as to anyone with a craving for authentically prepared Cajun-Creole cuisine. Owner Mary Madison opened Lagniappe in its current location in September 2004; before that, it operated as a catering/carry-out-only establishment. Our evening there was sprinkled with other treats and surprises, not the least of which was the jazz music we heard emanating from the warmly lit space as we approached from across the street.

On Thursday nights, Lagniappe hosts a late-night jam session until 10pm and invites its (often very talented) guests to come up and sing or play a number with the band. The first floor of the restaurant seats around twenty guests, and the closeness of the musicians enhanced a down-to-earth, intimate atmosphere. The music also helped to soothe the hunger pangs of an almost twenty-minute wait for most dishes, as smells wafted temptingly from each swing of the kitchen door. The long wait can be explained by the fact that Lagniappe cooks each dish as it’s ordered. The chefs aren’t just reheating your gumbo, they’re actually preparing it fresh, starting with the spicy roux base–a combination of flour and butter that gives the stew its savory thickness.

Lagniappe serves beer but also happily accepts BYOB-ing customers. One of their more interesting non-alcoholic beverages is their sweet tea, which may not be everyone’s cup of, as it initially hits the tongue like a honeyed cough syrup with a dash of Lipton. However, next to the Cajun-Creole spices, such sweetness was very refreshing. We began with a starter of “Wangs n’ Waffles.” “Wangs” are much like your standard chicken wings, except–as far as we could tell–larger, greasier, and served on a waffle with maple syrup. Subtly spiced, the wangs came out of the kitchen piping hot. The sticky, sweet maple syrup provided a unique foil to the Cajun flavors. Wangs are capable of becoming a meal on their own. One of the seemingly healthier options on the menu is a Cobb Salad with honey mustard dressing, topped with three to four of these sinful, fried monsters. As a testament to their epic status, in 2006, Lagniappe won a “Cage Match” competition devised by the staff of the Chicago Tribune at the annual Taste of Chicago. Their Wangs n’ Waffles combination gained almost twice as many votes as the wings from Harold’s Chicken.

In an attempt to conquer the entire bayou, we ordered gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée, as well as a serving of blackened catfish, despite being forewarned of the oversized portions. Everything but the cup of gumbo came with a corn muffin and two sides. The fish was served somewhat simply, alone on a plate, but seasoned and cooked to perfection, with the slightest hint of lemon complementing the heat of the cayenne. The gumbo came with a choice of chicken or seafood. Upon tasting the latter, we found the thick, dark soup to be surprisingly meaty. Traditional gumbo frequently features a combination of meats, rather than just one. This attribute of Cajun-Creole cooking may make navigating the menu difficult for some vegetarians: the seemingly vegetable-only rice and beans are flecked with andouille sausage, and many dishes are prepared and flavored with meat products. However, a note on the menu reassures that vegetarian options are available: you just need to ask for them.

The jambalaya is massive and can easily serve two people. The shrimp jambalaya was a delicious, spicy mess of rice and stew. Thickened with a roux similar to the gumbo, the jambalaya packed more heat, a prominent tomato base, and was liberally spiced with bay leaves, black pepper, and cayenne. Many dishes in this cuisine, including the jambalaya, rely on a trio of onions, green pepper, and celery to form the basic flavor profile of a stew before other spices are added.

In French, “étouffée” literally means “suffocated,” and that is precisely how the small island of rice appears under the savory swamp of chicken and vegetables in this dish. Suspended in this thick chicken soup were four large pieces of chicken, as well as the same trio of vegetables that formed the basis for the jambalaya. While the chicken étouffée promised to cure any common cold, the shrimp and crawfish options were just as tempting, as was the “Melange à trois”–a combination of all three.

The sides were equally impressive and very likely what prevented us from having room for dessert; a difficult decision since the menu boasted several varieties of pie, pudding, and cobbler, as well as a mysterious “Cake in a Jar.” A stellar macaroni and cheese was more like the love child between the latter and a baked ziti; using penne instead of macaroni, its cheddary, buttery sauce formed a light crust from its time in the oven. Who needs dessert anyway, when you can get candied sweets with your meal? Sweet potatoes that have been cooked down with sugar until they’re almost translucent are a jellied, sticky treat that will have you licking your spoon long after you’ve declared yourself full.

Lagniappe, 1525 W. 79th St. Tuesday-Wednesday, 11am-8pm; Thursday-Saturday, 11am-10pm. (773)944-6375.

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