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Trini and Cuban spots show their stuff



Although over 7,000 islands create the group of landforms which comprise the Caribbean, most people have a tendency to lump the cuisines in the same pot. But each Caribbean nation developed a cuisine dependent on its local food sources and history: the mix of immigrants and indigenous people. Nowhere is this more true than the country of Trinidad and Tobago, the most southern of the chain of islands dotting the Caribbean, only seven miles from the Venezuelan coast.

The cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago has a strong Indian influence since immigrants from that country, especially the west coast of India, arrived en masse as guest workers. Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is that small 65-mile-long strip on the west coast of India bordering the Arabian Sea. Goan cuisine is the fusion of Indian and Portuguese: spice with garlic and hot peppers. Ironically, this food (chile peppers are indigenous to the New World) became popular in Trinidad and Tobago.

In September 2008, Trini-native Leandra Pereira opened the strictly take-out outcropping of her native dishes. A Taste of the Caribbean Restaurant features the punched-up flavors of this island nation.

Trinidad's most renowned culinary contribution is Buss-Up-Shut, a white flour, paratha roti filled with a curry and a choice here of chicken, goat, shrimp or beef. While popular all year, Buss-Up-Shut is the requisite dish served on Arrival Day, a Trini national holiday celebrating the arrival of the first Indian indentured workers in 1845. Pereira's Buss-Up-Shut is a rustic roti, the size of a large burrito, loaded with a flavorful curry blend.

The Jerk Chicken has a lustrous, exotic quality with flavor permeating the bone. Pereira marinates the chicken for 24 hours before roasting -- not grilling -- it. This hearty plate arrives with oversized portions of rice and peas, and one side. The steamed cabbage is thickly cut with bell peppers and carrots. The collards have a heady hit of spice -- no need for a shot of Tabasco. The goat curry reminded me that not all curries are made from the spice components of India. This curry has fewer layers, but the meat -- bones intact -- is succulent. All the meats here are halal -- this is not customary in Trinidad, but Taste is located in a Moslem neighborhood.

Other dishes here include oxtail and chicken stews. Although "cow food dinner" was on the original menu, Pereira says that only Caribbean people know the dish and she has subsequently removed it. In the coming weeks, she plans on adding more American dishes to her roster, beginning with fried chicken (which has already been added). On one visit, I watched a young boy devour his dinner of fried chicken, but wondered why he didn't try the jerk.

In 1998, I wrote about La Gran Havana, a bright spot on the east side that served addicting lobster empanadas. Founding owner Carol Torrez, of Cuban decent from Miami, sold that business years ago. But the lure of the restaurant business has prompted her to re-emerge. In September, she opened the 70-seat Havana Cuban Cuisine, the first Cuban restaurant downtown.

In many ways, the interior of this small space has changed under Torrez' direction. The entrance through the building's interior is dramatic, but the building closes at 6 p.m., so the only entrance available is on Church Street. This door opens directly into the dining room. Dark paneling, textured walls, white linen tablecloths shielded by glass say dinner. But the restaurant awaits its liquor license and the subsequent thirsty 5 p.m. crowd.

The dinner roster hews closely to a typical Cuban lineup: the ubiquitous shredded beef (ropa vieja), Palomilla steak, whole fried snapper (which was a favorite at La Gran Havana), lamb shank marinated in orange, mojo, wine and sofrito, chicken and shrimp in lobster sauce, and roasted pork. Dinner entrées range from $10 to $18.

Lunch is fast and $8. The pollo asado, tender chicken (ordered either white or dark) marinated in mojo and spices, is a textbook rendition while the moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians -- a black bean and white rice dish) is an unequivocal success. Havana has five sandwiches all on Cuban bread, finished in the kitchen. You can't go wrong with the Cuban sandwich, layers of marinated roast pork, with thin slices of ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, slathered with mustard.

The drink list includes juices, shakes, coffee -- Cuban espresso, of course. My only question is, where are the empanadas?

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