The Best Spicy Shrimp and Grits in the Universe

By John Kass

Once upon a time I was a bacon and eggs guy, then a feta with spinach omelet guy, and briefly an egg whites with spinach guy, but that didn’t last long.

For a brief time, I went off the rails and sought out Oeufs Cocotte–French for baked eggs. Yes, they’re tasty, but I should have been smacked hard with yia-yia’s wooden spoon for my food snobbery.

I’ve since come back down to earth, or back to America or ‘Merica.

Because I’ve got this breakfast thing that’s bleepin’ golden, and creamy and eggy and cheesy with subtle layers of favor and incredibly complex layers of spicy:

Jimmy Banakis’ Spicy Shrimp and Grits.

Order eggs up, or poached, and break the yolks into that grits goodness. I get them at Juicy-O restaurant in Downers Grove, at 2942 Finley Road.

My friends Jimmy Banakis and his partner Steve Fotos didn’t want me to write about it until they got their grits just right. They’re perfectionists. And up until the other day, there was a pandemic supply-chain issue involving a key ingredient, the Chef’s Cream.

 They didn’t like the cream they were getting. But now they’ve got a guy, and I had some grits just the other morning. The dish was perfect, so it’s OK for me to write about it.

Jimmy’s so particular that years ago, he went on a journey to find the perfect grits. In New Orleans, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, eating grits and peppering chefs with questions about the grits, the cream, the technique, the spices.

In political writing and in the food world, the only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask.

“You don’t need a menu, do you?” the server asked Thursday morning when I met with our regular group of diner guys for breakfast. “We know what you want.”

Bingo.

So let it be written, let it be done.

There’s bacon in it, and scallions, sliced jalapeno, some parmesan and aged cheddar, with subtle layers of spice reaching back across oceans of flavor and several continents and across centuries of time.

It’s 100 percent all-American now.

I suppose some of you are wondering why I’m writing about Jimmy Banakis’ superb spicy shrimp and grits with the world going to hell.

My wife just asked me that.

“Why are you writing about grits and shrimp with the world going crazy?” asked Betty.

Because I wanted a great breakfast. And if I let the world go to hell and have a superb meal, it’s just fine with me. Hell can’t come to breakfast.

Yes, there may be a constitutional crisis involving General Mark “White Rage” Milley and Nancy Pelosi over that mysterious phone call to the Chinese general. But we need to know more. And as I type this, a top Clinton attorney has just been indicted for lying and trying to manipulate the FBI to damage a political rival in that Russia collusion hoax.

And there’s another crisis in corporate liberal media, as unhinged angry left-wing pundits in print and on TV–the same phonies who once screamed about the dangers of “authoritarianism” when Republicans were in power–now demand that the unvaccinated (even if they’ve already had Covid-19) be shunned, cast out, hounded, mobbed, exiled and all but burned at the stake for the sins of their witchcraft found in the Constitution.

Violence in the cities, and violence against the minds of the young in those re-education camps known as public government schools. Oh, and there is no Southern border anymore, is there?

What might be worse is that the Chicago Bears suck. And my beloved Chicago Fire F.C. suck too, but no one cares about the Fire and my friends don’t want free Fire tickets that I’ve offered to them. They had to wash their hair or something.

And inflation.

I don’t take drugs, not even pot. Whiskey in the morning isn’t my thing, except maybe cognac in black coffee when heavy snow is on the ground.

There are no blue pills to take, and the red pill of reality can ruin your digestion with the Idiocracy going crazy.

But there is one thing:

 Jimmy’s Spicy Shrimp and Grits.

The big deal is that I love it. You might not love it. You might like pop tarts for breakfast. Or “Appla pie and coffee,” which is what my father ordered in non-Greek diners until he learned English.

You might love a delicious bowl of real home-made yogurt with fresh figs, or with walnuts and drizzled honey. Or have a lame protein bar and drink smart water because you’re smart. But that’s you. This is me.

It is the simplicity of simple things, old school things that get to my heart. And Spicy Shrimp and Grits get to me, with hundreds of years of tradition behind the dish, from many hands and many fascinating cultures, from Africa and stone-ground hominy of slaves, from the Creole People of the American South adding their own touches, from all the people of the American South, white, Black and brown, in Louisiana and Georgia and the Carolinas and other parts of the “low country” and those crazy Gulf shrimpers.

Yeah, I’ve met some crazy shrimpers in Florida.

And all those hands making something good, something now purely and uniquely American, a history lesson in every spoonful.

“You have to start with good grits, real grits, stone ground, not instant, which is a sin,” said Frank Georgacopoulos, a partner and executive chef and partner with the Juicy-O restaurants and Southern Belles.

He went on that grits journey with Jimmy.

“You know how Jimmy is. He’s particular,” said Georgacopoulos, “we went everywhere for the best grits. And I mean everywhere across the South, where grits are a religion, in the kitchens, asking questions, learning.”

The grits are cooked in vegetable stock, butter and the Chef’s Cream, so it won’t break down like a bad Alfredo sauce. Then blackened seasoning and finished off-heat with parmesan and white cheddar until it clings to the back of a wooden spoon.

In another pan, butter, oil, jalapenos, bacon, and caramelizing mushroom. Then the peeled and deveined shrimp.

“Yes, there are a few secret ingredients that are proprietary, but the main thing was getting the right Chef’s cream.”

Frank found a purveyor that had some. He ordered a whole pallet, and more is on the way.

“Some other restaurants may have been upset that we took so much, but you need that good cream.”

Too bad for them. It makes Jimmy’s Spicy Shrimp and Grits just perfect.

Have I ever steered you wrong when it comes to tasty food?

I don’t think so.

One spoonful makes the world go away.

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(copyright 2021 John Kass)