Ron's Cajun Connection In Utica, Illinois

Stop for gumbo and gator along the Illinois antique trail

The string of small towns along Route 6, which traces the Illinois River from Seneca to Spring Valley, is a treasure trove of antiques (especially vintage kitchenware). But for Cajun-lovers, the 90-mile trek from Chicago is worth it for Ron's Cajun Connection alone.

Drive down the barren strip between Ottawa and North Utica, stop at the pale pink shack, and grab a seat in the dining room adorned with Louisiana kitsch. There you'll find cups of sweet seafood gumbo; blackened alligator; creamy crawfish étouffée; jambalaya (pictured); Louisiana beer; and gooey, caramely pecan pie.

Cajun Ron (pictured) opened his restaurant 15 years ago after working his way north from Louisiana, developing recipes–for batter, boudin, blackening spice–along the way. He batter-fries catfish, frog legs, oysters, alligator and crispy Bubba shrimp–gulf shrimp so sweet they don't need any sauce. Take his homemade boudin–or containers of his Hot Damn spice blend (think Old Bay meets Bayou)–to go.

Ron regularly drives south to pick up shrimp, andouille sausage and crawfish–whose season starts in January (sign up for the mailing list to get the date for the next crawfish boil).

He's in Louisiana stocking up right now, but will be back for a Mardi Gras kickoff party on January 7 with the owners (and wines) of nearby August Hill Winery.

Ron's Cajun Connection, 897 U.S. Highway 6, Utica; 815-667-9855 or