Inspired by childhood adventures collecting and cooking crawdads, turtles and the occasional alligator, Rich Ortega developed a deep appreciation for shrimp boils, andouille spiked jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. He grew up in Humble, Texas approximately 100 miles from the Louisiana border and admits Cajun food traditions were alive and well in his hometown. Today, Ortega, a chef with 17 years of industry experience, is bringing his brand of Cajun fare to Forest Park.
“Food doesn’t stop at an imaginary line,” said Ortega. “I grew up in Texas, but we cooked all the same foods they have in Louisiana. I wanted to give my restaurant a name that would feel familiar to people.”
Located inside of Angelo O’Leary’s, 7522 W. Madison St., NOLA Louisiana Kitchen opened at the end of February and brought with it a considerable following thanks to a Westchester steppingstone, a Brookfield pop up dinner and a history of slinging shrimp boils to-go.
In early 2020, along with his fiancé and business partner, Kayla Hernandez, the single father was looking for a way to bring in some extra money. The duo began working out of a shared kitchen to cook and deliver traditional shrimp boils. Ironically Ortega is allergic to shrimp, but that doesn’t mean he can’t cook it and the straightforward Cajun dish made with shell-on shrimp, garlic butter, Andouille sausage, potatoes, and corn on the cob, resonated with the Brookfield community. Soon the couple was serving shrimp boils by the hundreds.
Eager to build on their shrimp boil success, Ortega and Hernandez began contemplating restaurant ownership, but didn’t want to make that leap without a trial run. They partnered up with Sebastian’s Ale and Whiskey House, 8900 Fairview Ave. in Brookfield, to host a pop-up dinner on a Monday evening in March 2020. Ortega led the kitchen and Hernandez handled front of house operations.
“We wanted to bring in our servers, our cooks and our menu,” said Ortega, who worked at Sebastian’s at the time. “We wanted to see how people felt about our simple menu and suddenly we were 300 deep on a Monday night.”
According to Ortega the response to their one-night event was positive, but just days after their successful restaurant take-over COVID-19 closed Illinois dining rooms. The couple put their restaurant dreams on hold and returned to offering their shrimp boil deliveries.
“Our shrimp boils became even more popular during the pandemic because everyone was looking for delivery options,” said Ortega. “We had enough support that we felt ready to have our own space.”
On Sept. 1, 2021, Nola Louisiana Kitchen opened inside of Anna’s Place, 10261 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Westchester. Business was quite good inside the diminutive gaming café, but with only four tables onsite they outgrew the space rapidly.
“Out of nowhere we were just slammed and we needed to be able to do more than 20 covers a night,” said Ortega.
Armed with more than 3,500 Facebook followers, Ortega relied on a pre-existing relationship with the owner of Angelo O’Leary’s to bring their menu of Cajun favorites to Forest Park. O’Leary’s was looking to serve food and Ortega was attracted to the 60 covers he could do every night in the Madison Street bar. Since opening, NOLA Louisiana Kitchen has enjoyed steady business with the bulk of guests being first time customers. Ortega is quick to point out seafood boils, while on the menu, appear to be less popular than they were in Westchester and Brookfield. Forest Park customers have been drawn to rice and roux-based offerings as well as NOLA’s Pasta Orleans featuring pappardelle, blackened shrimp, crawfish tails and andouille sausage in Cajun alfredo sauce. Ortega’s “croissant-style” beignets are a fitting end to any meal at NOLA Louisiana Kitchen inside of Angelo O’Leary’s.
“It has been a lifelong goal to have a restaurant,” said Ortega. “We knew this was going to be good, but Kayla and I didn’t know it would be this good. We work well together, and this has been even more fun than we thought it would be.”