In the mood for seafood? 815 Cajun in Rockford, Illinois, is just the place.
Decorated in a coastal motif, fishing nets hang from the ceiling and walls with artificial crabs and lobsters. There is an intimate bar area in the rear of the restaurant that seats six, and beautiful faux wood tiles make up the flooring.
The ambience was casual and fun, and I loved the music (my dad’s favorite: boogie-woogie). It might not have been the original recordings, but I recognized the songs. Driven by piano and horns, New Orleans jazz just seems to make you feel good. It was perfect for changing gears from the work week to the weekend.
Once we were seated, our server brought a roll of butcher paper, tore off a huge piece and used it to cover our table. We had the feeling the meal could be messy.
We ordered beverages and noted that although 815 Cajun has a bar, it doesn’t currently serve alcohol. The menu promises beer and wine are coming soon.
Cajun food makes me think of spicy red sauce or blackened fish, so I was surprised and a bit disappointed when neither was on the menu. There is actually a somewhat limited selection (I would love to see something “green” on the menu), but we did our best to try a taste of everything.
We started with fried calamari ($8.75) and hush puppies ($5.25). Crisp, lightly salted squid rings were presented with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges on a huge bed of Cajun fries. The hush puppies, made from a cornmeal-based batter, were deep-fried balls of goodness. Seasoned with onion and garlic and served with a horseradish/ketchup sauce, they were divine. I was full before we even ordered our entrees.
Checking in as we deliberated over the entrees, our attentive server helpfully explained the “seafood market” part of the menu listed on a blackboard on the wall. Basically, it is a seafood boil at current market price, so you pick your “catch” and choice of seasonings from the list provided. This includes clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp, crab and crawfish, as well as oysters.
I love king crab (who doesn’t?), but I just wasn’t prepared to pay top dollar without testing this place out. I decided to go for the fried catfish, as I had grown up on the best. This was top-notch with two large filets of crunchy, cornmeal-crusted fish ($10.75). I ordered mine with more Cajun fries, which were not very spicy.
Feeling brave, Jennifer chose to order the gator bites basket ($15.75) as her entree. She was more than elated after taking her first bite. The deep-fried nuggets had a mild, fishy flavor and a firm texture. Both chewy and a bit sweet, they were served with the same sauce as the hush puppies.
Jennifer ordered regular fries and added a side of barbecued beans ($2), which was made up of three types of beans. The smoky, tangy flavor was outstanding.
Helene was craving mussels, and Nikki wanted crab, so they decided to split the pick-three 1.5-pound combo bucket ($30). For their third seafood choice, they went with shrimp. (As a side note, if you like eating shrimp heads, 815 Cajun does offer that option).
Helene and Nikki, however, opted for the heads-off shrimp. Next, they had to select a spice level and sauce option. Sauces included plain butter, garlic butter, Cajun or lemon pepper, and the spice levels ranged from mild to AAAHHH!!! Helene gets a little nervous about heat, so they went for mild and garlic butter.
The combo arrived in a plastic bag filled with the seafood and corn on the cob, andouille sausage and whole baby potatoes, all swimming in the light, fragrant sauce. Helene and Nikki tied on their bibs and dug in. It was a pretty tame entree considering the possibilities, but it was delicious nonetheless.
King crab and snow crab are both listed on the seafood market board, but only the snow crab is an eligible pick for the combo. We shared tips and tools for “cracking crab.” It was messy, of course, but the sweet crab was worth the trouble. The smoky sausage, which had bite, was another highlight of the dish. Even though Helene and Nikki shared the meal, there were still plenty of wonderful leftovers.
We were too stuffed to order dessert, but there was one on the menu: the sweet biscuit ($5.50). Our server described it as a doughnut-like biscuit with powdered sugar. Maybe I’ll try it next time, when I return for that king crab.
The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.