#974: Coco’s Famous Deep Fried Lobster

August 31st, 2018

Two years staring at the restaurant was enough. I decided to get some lobster.

Across Clark from the modernist federal prison shaped like a triangle, on a block of 1800s buildings that somehow survived the skyscrapering and Mies van der Rohe-ing of the Chicago Loop, next to a sign that blares HOTEL MEN ONLY into the atmosphere, there’s a soul food joint that’s been alluring me.

My main attraction to the place was also my main source of reluctance: the awning that declared it the home of Coco’s Famous Deep Fried Lobster.

I’ve been staring at that awning for more than two years.

Either the lobster joint or the pawn shop next to it was once the home of the Workingman’s Exchange, the bar from which late 1800s/early 1900s aldermen Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and John “Bathhouse” Coughlin ran their empire of corruption. That was where you paid your protection money to keep the cops away from your whorehouse another week. That’s where a properly (i.e., Kenna-approved) ballot on Election Day would earn you a free schooner of beer, “The Largest and Coolest in the City” as they advertised.

From this perch in a neighborhood then called the Little Cheyenne, Bathhouse and the Hink lorded over the vice district known as the Levee, a massive red-light strip of sex, booze and political oppression running from the Loop down to Chinatown.

So since I started my Corruption Walking Tour Company in 2016, I’ve used the little perch across from the former Exchange as gathering spot for my political tourists. From across the way, I’ve pointed at Coco’s seemingly hundreds of times, told the tales of the site’s former former however-many-formers-it-is former owners as example prime of the meeting point between politics and crime.

But I never got their lobster.

I mean, “deep fried lobster.” Is it gross? Is it the most delicious treat I’ve never had? Is it heartburn and a heart attack or a delightful soul food delicacy I’ve simply spent my life unaware of.

Tucked between a liquor store and a pawn shop and below what in less-polite times would be called a transient hotel, the place looks sketchy from the outside. Through those doors, it was clean, airy and comfortable. There was light, deliberately inoffensive music playing overhead and inspirational posters about God’s role in our lives scattered about the place. Flatscreen TVs lining the top walls of the place displayed the menu items and prices.

An old man in a shirt, apron and ball cap, shrunken in that way the muscular elderly sometimes get, looked at me for my order.

“Small lob and a Jarrito!” the man called to the back when I gave it.

Then I waited among light pop and flatscreens in the room where Bathhouse John and the Hink sold Chicago. Unless the bar was in the pawn shop.

So what does deep-fried lobster served across from a federal prison possibly in the former home of one of the deeper dens of political corruption the city has ever known taste like?

Pretty good.

More like popcorn shrimp than the oil-plunged crustacea-wad I had been picturing/fearing/lusting after for a fifth-decade, Coco’s Famous Deep Fried Lobster is, at $15.50, slightly spendy but pretty good.

While I think batter dipping might better serve shrimp, scallops or other more self-contained seameat, the little balls of lobster and crust were tender, juicy and expertly prepared. It’s easy to overcook in a deep fryer and they didn’t. The flavor was good, if light. The fries were near perfect and when I bit into that last piece, I wanted more.

I think next time I’ll go for some shrimp (they’re much cheaper and come highly recommended), but all in all I’m glad I walked through that door I had spent more than two years just staring at.

A journalist documents a night in the transient hotel above

A talk to the hotel manager about the community

Meet the great-great-niece of Bathhouse John

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You are currently reading #974: Coco’s Famous Deep Fried Lobster by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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