There’s no place like New Orleans. The never-ending nightlife awash in Big Gulp-sized cocktails. The ebullient, spontaneous live music. The mosaic of cultural influences housed in single, flavorful dishes.
Pioneer Tavern Group executive chef Brian Jupiter, a New Orleans native, occasionally references Bayou flavors at his whole-beast mainstay Frontier. But at breezy younger sibling Ina Mae Tavern (named after Jupiter’s great-grandmother), he dives headfirst into the home cooking of his childhood. The results are joyful, indulgent and refreshingly relaxed—traits that lure me back time and again to the Big Easy, and will surely make Ina Mae part of my regular dining rotation.
The vibe in this airy, brick- and wood-accented space is casual and amenable to families—not least because of a vintage mechanical horse named Fanny, whose efficacy was repeatedly tested by our three-year-old dining companion. The bar’s checkered-tile floor and an old beer fridge in the dining room nod to the space’s former resident: beloved Wicker Park dive the Beachwood Inn. Dry goods and house hot sauce bottles adorn the back bar next to a Sno Ball machine that churns out shaved ice, which is then doused in flavored syrup with the option to add a shot of booze.
A small bowl of Gumbo Ya-Ya arrived first, with soft okra, chicken, sausage, crabmeat, shrimp and rice—all wrapped in roasty, brown gumbo deepened by bell pepper, celery and onion. We fought over choice bits of boiled potato salad—mustard-slicked and tossed with boiled eggs and relish—which is spooned in at the very end along with the rice. “A real NoLa thing,” Jupiter later explained.
The rest of the meal followed like an avalanche of deep-fried comfort—quite literally, since food comes out as ready. (On that note, I’d suggest staggering your order.)
A stack of crispy eggplant coins waded in tangy, pink beurre blanc dotted with nubs of sweet crawfish meat. Shell-on boiled shrimp, perfumed with pepper, paprika and garlic, were succulent rather than springy—betraying a freshness I only expect seaside. Digging into the Po’ Man’s Seafood Tower—a formidable heap of fried Gulf seafood, cakey hushpuppies and potatoes—we took to calling out whatever we excavated. “Crawfish!”—poppable and sweet. “Catfish!”—juicy and unmistakably rivery. “Oyster!”—cooked to slippery perfection. Lurking beneath it all we unearthed more potato treasures—crushed, fried and coated in lemony cayenne aioli and Parmesan. We liberally doused everything with vinegary house hot sauce.
Buttermilk-brined chicken, coated in cornmeal batter and fried till craggy, was so moist and juicy that my breast-meat–averse date wolfed down every last bite of her breast-meat piece, admittedly out of reverence.
We washed it all down with punchy, bright cocktails like La Louisianne, an absinthe-washed sazerac analog with piney Benedictine liqueur and Jim Beam rye. The intriguing Old Tub at St. James Place—with Jim Beam, amaretto, lemon juice, a Guinness ice cube and a sage leaf—started out tart but deepened as the malty stout mass slowly melted.
“Any dessert?” asked our server wryly. A few minutes later she delivered a trio of beignets beneath a snowy mound of confectioners’ sugar. Denser and more complex than their pillowy cousins at Cafe du Monde, the doughnuts owed their moist chew and beer-like tang to a 24-hour ferment. They were sheer delight dabbed liberally in powdered sugar—a new taste memory that nonetheless stayed with me.
I wasn’t alone. The next morning I awoke to a text from my friend: “I can’t stop thinking about those beignets.”
Atmosphere: You won’t find a more joyful homage to the Big Easy than Pioneer Tavern Group’s latest, where the fried bites are plentiful, the drinks quenching and boozy, and the vibe oh-so relaxed.
What to eat: Boiled seafood purists will delight in the expertly cooked and spiced shellfish on this mostly eat-with-your-hands menu. The fried chicken is satisfyingly crunchy outside and juicy inside, while hearty po’boys are split in threes for easy sharing.
What to drink: Refreshing, not-too-sweet cocktails pair nicely with the indulgent fare, like agave-sweetened Pimms with gin, a cucumber cube and ginger. Or go for a pint of crisp, NoLa-born Abita Purple Haze lager, one of two dozen draft and canned beers.
Where to sit: Grab a high-top table in the bar for casual weeknight dinner. The soaring, casual dining room can easily handle large groups.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.