Even if you have plenty of options to choose from, sometimes the best you can do is only just OK. You know this, for example, if you’ve ever tried to pick out a birthday card for your boss at the drugstore. You have an aisle full of choices - creepy children flying kites at midnight, kittens demanding that you “hang in there,” and one that plays Sisqo’s “Thong Song” when you open it - but eventually you give up on finding something perfect, and just settle for one that won’t get you fired. This is the feeling we have when we eat at Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods. There are a lot of options on the menu, but most of them are just average.
Ina Mae is a New Orleans-inspired spot in Wicker Park. And while Southern restaurants in Chicago are often about as subtlely decorated as a town in Six Flags, this one is pretty understated. There’s a large “Dixie Beer” stencil on the back wall, and a shelf full of empty wooden crates and some burlap sacks. Overall, the atmosphere is casual - there’s a big bar and a bright, high-ceilinged dining room that works well for families and groups.
As mentioned, the menu is long, and it doesn’t have anything particularly terrible or amazing on it - your options range from pretty decent to not-very-good. On the better end of the spectrum, you’ll find tasty po’boys that will probably make your friend from New Orleans happy, a nicely crispy fried chicken with hot honey, and some very good beignets. On the more disappointing end, there are dry hushpuppies served with a pimento butter that doesn’t add enough spice, and chargrilled oysters covered in too much bland cheese. There’s also some underseasoned seafood (like shrimp, oysters, clams, and catfish) that’s sold by the half pound, and just isn’t worth your time. Most of the other options, like the gumbo, seafood mac and cheese, and crawfish elotes, fall somewhere in the middle: inoffensive, but unmemorable.
Restaurant menus shouldn’t be stressful, but if they are, hopefully it’s because everything is so good that you’re worried about missing out. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case at Ina Mae, where most of the things on the long menu are just mediocre. You could come here and stick to a couple dishes that are perfectly fine (plus some very good beignets), but you’re better off making another choice entirely. Leave the stress for that next big office birthday you need to plan.
These are dry, dense, and pretty boring. Plus, the sweet pimento butter they come with doesn’t add enough spice or moisture.
We generally don’t mind when things are covered in cheese, but these chargrilled oysters are the exception. The cheese in question is bland and overwhelms the oysters - and there’s a creole butter hiding in there, but we can’t taste it.
This is a heavy dish, since the corn and crawfish are mixed with a lot of mayonnaise and cotija cheese. It’s the opposite of light and fresh, but it is tasty in small doses.
We like the fried chicken here. The cornmeal batter stays nice and crispy, and the meat is juicy (you get a leg, a thigh, and a breast). Plus, it’s drizzled with a little hot honey to give it some sweetness and spice.
This is a very mild gumbo - the only spice seems to come from the pieces of sausage. You won’t go home dreaming about it, but you probably won’t leave complaining, either.
As a general rule, cheese and noodles are a satisfying combination, and even a “bad” version of mac and cheese is still pretty tasty. But we’re not fans of the version at Ina Mae - mainly because of the overcooked noodles, the lack of seafood, and the same flavorless cheese situation we found with the oysters.
Ina Mae has very good po’boys. The French bread is crunchy and fluffy, and we’ve enjoyed every variety we’ve tried (there are seven on the menu). Our favorites are the fried oyster and the “peacemaker” (which has both roast beef and fried shrimp).
Your options here are shrimp, crawfish, clams, mussels, and catfish, all of which you can get boiled or fried by the half pound (except for the catfish, which is only available fried). It’s underseasoned, and the boiled shellfish tastes tough. Skip this.
Go ahead and skip this, too. The crab stuffing is mostly bread, and the texture is really mushy. Plus, it sits on a bed of creamed corn that belongs in a cafeteria.
These are some of the best beignets we’ve had in Chicago. They’re crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside, and covered in a mountain of powdered sugar. If you do come here for dinner, definitely get these for dessert.