Cajun Connection might be the most random choice for best Louisiana eatery.
That's because it's in the middle of Illinois cornfields.
The restaurant, which counts fried alligator tail as a signature dish and decorated like it's Mardi Gras every day of the year, certainly seems out place in Utica, Illinois, a village of 1,300 people about 80 miles from the Quad-Cities.
It starts to make more sense when you talk to regulars who drive an hour once a week for a cup of gumbo soup.
And, it makes even more sense when you meet “Cajun Ron."
Ron McFarlain greets everyone who comes to his restaurant with a smile, fist bump and a thick Southern drawl that hasn’t faded since his move from Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the 1990s.
“We’re unique,” McFarlain, who turns 60 next week, said. “We cook everything ourselves 100 percent. That's rare.”
What’s most unique about Cajun Connection, however, is probably the man behind it.
‘He's not shy’
If you haven't met Cajun Ron before, his wife will offer something of a disclaimer.
“Well, he has a personality,” Amy McFarlain said. “You’ll find that out pretty quickly.”
When I sat down with McFarlain last week, it took less than a minute to see what she means.
Regulars will tell you service doesn't get much friendlier, and personal, than Ron.
“He's not shy,” said Linda Chrysler, of Ottawa, who visits Cajun Connection once a month with her husband, Dick, for shrimp etouffe, and sips of Miller Lite.
During our visit, McFarlain told me salad is the “filthiest food on Earth,” led me in a two-step to Zydeco music, stole my camera to capture my first (and only) time holding frozen gator tail and confidently explained I simply haven't had Cajun food until I tried his creations.
“We have lots of regulars and lots of people that come from all over,” he said. “Because of my big mouth, some of them don’t come back.”
But, his big mouth and personality, is what brings so many more back.
Before the doors opened, McFarlain handed me a plastic spoon so we could taste-test samples of the roux and gumbo together.
He and his crew of cooks prep for about five hours each day and McFarlain is always striving for a "no flaws" taste.
“Everyone thinks Cajun food is hot and spicy, but it’s really about flavor," he said. "When you cook it every day, it never tastes the same. It's like you can’t make lasagna taste the same every time.”
A series of construction jobs led McFarlain to the Utica area, where he quickly realized there was an absence of his hometown cuisine.
“Growing up near the swamps, we’d kill, clean, eat,” he said. “Little did I know I’d be cooking that way for my whole life.”
In 1995, when he first opened a small place on the corner of U.S. 6 and Illinois 178, nobody wanted to eat alligator tail. He ended up giving away a lot of the dish, perfected with his lightly-seasoned batter, for free.
He did mostly everything on his own for two years until his then-girlfriend Amy, now his wife of three years, joined the force.
“He mentioned he was short-handed, so I started helping out, and the rest is history,” she said.
Together, in 2001, they moved Cajun Connection down the road to the former Lone Street Inn, a light-pink house that's more than 90 years old and seats about 70 people inside. The couple lives on the second floor.
Some residents of Utica frequent the establishment, said Amy McFarlain, but it's the out-of-towners, including visitors to Starved Rock State Park, a wilderness area about four miles away in Oglesby, Illinois, that keep it going.
“Now people ask for gator,” Ron McFarlain, who said he orders about 5,000 pounds of tail each year, said. “It's a little bit of a gimmick, but it's all over the menu. And it will amaze you.”
If you're up for a road trip, Cajun Connection is the go-to party place for Fat Tuesday next week.
The Utica Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday kicks off activities. About 200 people attend each year, in part, to see McFarlain's flashy gator float and to guarantee a catch of king cake and free beads.
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“It's hectic. We’re exhausted the day after Fat Tuesday,” Ron McFarlain said, before posing a typical question to his wife. “Isn't that right, Amy?”
She nods her head and says, “Yes, it's a very big, day.”
Next week, they say, is the start of their busy season that only gets busier with warm weather.
And by the way, Ron McFarlain said the restaurant had a record-setting January in sales last month.
It's a lot to manage for the couple, who have three kids and four grandchildren. The McFarlains say they spend their time working at the restaurant or talking about the restaurant.
“It's crazy, whenever we go, people know of Cajun Ron,” Amy McFarlain said. “It's the toughest job you'll ever love.”
Whether they're here for Cajun Ron or the food he makes, customers seem to seek out Cajun Connection for an escape.
It doesn't feel like the Midwest. And this is no plate of meat and potatoes.
“It's the only Cajun food between here and Chicago," Ron McFarlain said. "A lot of people don't know that because they don't what Cajun really tastes like."
You'll get that taste when trying his pork-infused Boudin balls, anything dipped in his handmade sauces, a selection of beer from Abita Springs, Louisiana, or Amy's bread pudding topped with locally made cinnamon ice cream.
“I was taught the old-school way,” Ron McFarlain said. “A recipe is a recipe, but you have to make it your own.”
And that's what he's done for the past 22 years.
Take it from Russell and Donna Spicer and Tom and Roberta Wilson, who make the 45-minute drive from Sparland, Illinois, a couple of times per month for a double date at Cajun Connection.
“It’s delicious every time,” Donna Spicer said. “You can come here and never get a bad meal.”
“And Ron ... you never get a dull moment with him.”