Sitting at a table not too far from the kitchen, you can hear the Cajun yell over the clanking of dishes and the hum of conversation.
Man has defeated alligator ... and lightly breaded it to perfection.
In these parts, he's known as Cajun Ron.
The smell of fried batter permeates throughout the crowded restaurant that feels more like an extended home. Signs such as "Gator bites, owner kills" and "Attack chef" litter the wood-paneled walls and show off the chef's sense of humor.
Once a bowl of steaming gumbo arrives, you feel as if you are in a backwoods diner in Louisiana, only to be surprised looking out the window: There's no bayou, just corn and soybean fields.
Don't fret, there's sure to be some jambalaya and pecan pie to follow.
The restaurant is Cajun Connection and it's located on U.S. Highway 6, just a few miles north of Utica in the heart of Starved Rock Country. That's 900 miles from Louisiana.
Nine hundred is a significant number, because that's also how many miles delicacies such as alligator have traveled from swamp to table.
Owner Ron McFarlain is from those swamps, hailing from Lake Charles, La. — a city about 40 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Texas. There he was raised to cook and eat what was hunted from the swamps.
Making his way up to Illinois, he opened the Cajun Connection in 1995 at the corner of U.S. Highway 6 and Route 178, sharing his family's tradition in a region where "etouffee" is a foreign word.
Having to give away gator to skeptical patrons in the early days, he started to win over a clientele that now forms lines out the door in frigid temperatures and burning heat to bite into his homemade boudin balls — a recipe of his own boudin sausage — deep fried and served as an appetizer.
By 2001, Ron, who married Amy (Martin) McFarlain, moved the restaurant east down the road to it's current location, now serving a menu with everything cajun from crawfish to red beans and rice. Amy's bread pudding with whiskey sauce has become a favorite dessert.
Ron insists on serving food caught from his native Louisiana or the Gulf, taking frequent trips to either hunt or hand pick the meat he cooks, especially crawfish and bubba shrimp.
Most every menu item has a tie to the Pelican State, including the micro-brewed Abita beer from Abita Springs, La., and Community Coffee out of Baton Rouge, La.
Before sinking your teeth into the first bite, there's a 99.9 percent chance Ron will take a seat at the table for a visit. Just look for the guy wearing a black T-shirt that says on the front, "Hot beer, lousy food, bad sauce."
"Have you ever eaten cajun food?" he asks his customers with his long Southern drawl. "What do you think of when you think of cajun food? ... Spicy?"
His style of cajun food is not what most people expect. As Ron tells customers, "Not all cajun restaurants are the same."
Don't expect most of the food to blister your tongue or put you into a sweat. That's what Ron's concocted "Hot Damn" seasoning for and puts on each table.
The gumbo is served with a savory chicken flavor, more similar to a chicken noodle soup, than a redder gumbo found in other cajun restaurants.
This keeps customers like Michael Kelly coming back. Rain, sleet or snow, she makes the one-hour drive from her hometown of Dwight with family and friends to have her birthday meal at Cajun Connection, persuading any newcomers to try the alligator. Of course, Ron is the one bringing out the cake and bellowing out, "Happy Birthday" for Michael.
"It's my favorite place, I love it," she said. "The gumbo here is really good, and it's different than anything else I've had."
Speaking of gumbo, there may be another question Ron launches your way: "Gumbo, or the salad?"
Let's just say the right answer rhymes with "jumbo."
And if you've answered the salad, he'll stand up and raise an indignant fuss.
Because honestly, "Who comes to a place like this and orders a salad?"
But as he stands, showing the message on the back of his T-shirt — "another disastrous customer" — you'll know he's just kidding.
Cajun Connection is like a trip within a trip for those visiting Starved Rock Country. Customers not only get a taste of authentic cajun cooking, but also a dose of Louisiana flavor — rivaled only 900 miles away.
Connecting to the Cajun
Cajun Connection is located at 897 U.S. 6, North Utica, Ill., at the intersection of U.S. 6 and East 9th Road, about a mile east of the intersection of U.S. 6 and Route 178.
The restaurant's hours vary depending on the season and customers sometimes must wait before being seated during peak dinner hours. Entree prices are modest with few, if any, entrees exceeding $20.
Go to ronscajunconnection.com or call 815-667-9855 for more information.