Isle Be Seeing You
I stopped by on a whim, at about five-thirty in the afternoon, drawn in by both the action and the tickle on my internal culinary Geiger counter. Regardless of what the clock said, I wanted lunch, since I'd slept really late and already had two dinners scheduled for that night. A culinary animal like myself with circadians blown all out of whack by sporadic insomnia and too many years of late shifts can eat two dinners in a night and still consider himself borderline normal. But three? No way. Three dinners, and the organs go into autonomic revolt, refusing all demands of digestion. So I tried to trick the delicate machineries of degustation by calling my meal lunch, and it worked. But then, so does everything at Caribbean Cuisine Plus.
The joint was being hit by wave after wave of customers rolling in for takeout, receding with their dinners, then being replaced with more people coming in empty-handed and leaving with big white bags of to-go styros trailing smears of island spice and thick sugarcane sauces in their wake, the smells so vibrant that they were almost like colors staining the air. There's a weird sort of anti-Levittown voodoo -- some subconscious trashing of all your cultural jingoism -- that creeps into the brain when you find any good ethnic establishment not just surviving, but thriving in the heart of somewhere that it shouldn't be. A Vietnamese noodle house in Koreatown, a Korean church in a Mexican neighborhood, a Mexican pastelleria in an old Italian ghetto -- what have you. They take on this sense of otherness, giving you the feeling that, just like Mickey Mouse says, it is really a small world after all. And this little Caribbean restaurant sandwiched between a butcher's shop and a hair salon just feels right. Like, of course, there should be a Caribbean restaurant here, and why hasn't there been one here all along?
Before last December, when this space became Caribbean Cuisine, it was a chicken-wings and barbecue joint. Before that? Who knows. Things change quick in this restaurant climate. The salon next door, though, has been in place for a while, and that's where Vivienne Donaldson was working -- one of the many places she was working -- when the wing joint closed. She wasn't a hairstylist, didn't do nails or extensions. She was a caterer who worked with a lot of the barbershops and salons in the area, and when the folks at the beauty shop told her that the space next door was going to be open soon, she rallied her family -- and she and her husband, Charles, their son, Paul, and Paul's aunt, Winsome Bambury, decided that maybe it was time to get into the restaurant business for real, with an actual address and a place to call home.
The family is from Jamaica, and although they've been in the States for twenty years, cooking Caribbean seemed the natural thing. Round out the menu with some soul food -- the "Plus" in Caribbean Cuisine Plus being the collard greens, hot links and fried chicken of the American Southern tradition -- as well as a little this-and-that, and bingo: the American Dream, restaurant-style. Everyone pitched in. They opened the shop. And the crowds were just there.
The Donaldsons have been looking for a bigger space ever since.
Ahead of me in line was a doddering grandmother in Minnie Pearl glasses picking up curried goat for her son, who was coming over to visit. At one of the half-dozen tables in the dining room -- a space sparsely decorated with the red, green and yellow of the Jamaican flag, along with oil-on-canvas renditions of old island travel posters and a few oddly pixilated but strangely homey pictures of family, folks and island life -- was a Middle Eastern family eating jerk chicken and collard greens. Behind me, a cop was waiting on a takeout order. It was one of those neighborhood scenes that renews my faith in the palates and eating habits of my culinary fellow travelers. And their tastes -- because this food was great. Every dish I tried at that late lunch was simple, generously portioned, laden with the freight and history of southern-latitude peasant cooking that the Donaldsons (and aunt Winsome) had brought with them from Jamaica. I got out for around ten bucks, feeling good and feeling full.
Funny thing is, I can't tell you anything about my two other dinners that night, because I don't remember them. I'm sure I ate somewhere nice, with white tablecloths, fawning servers and strangled squab in mango jus with balsamic-glazed rattlesnake testicles or something equally horrifying as the special, but that's it. I'm drawing the big blank on specifics like the names of the restaurants and what, exactly, I forked sparingly into my indiscriminate maw. But I have no problem recalling that grandmother in front of me at the counter at Caribbean Cuisine, the fizzing bubbles against my nose when I took my first sip of ginger beer, and the sweety-spicy musky dark-meat taste of a chicken leg in jerk sauce eaten with my fingers. That all hung with me. Like Harry Crews once wisely said: The good shit sticks.
My second meal was a proper dinner, on a night when it was my only one. I wanted goat, and Caribbean Cuisine delivered. The kitchen's green curry sauce was sweet, shading toward heat but never really getting there -- coming on instead like a pulled punch, sparing the potential violence of Caribbean spice in favor of a more delicate touch of aromatic flavor. And while the goat itself was a little stringy, a little chewy and greasy with a soft-edged fattiness that tempered the sauce so well, it was a lot less gamey than people who don't eat goat think goat ought to be. The dish reminded me of the curried goat I got at this Pakistani bakery in another strip mall in Albuquerque which, in turn, reminded me of the curried goat that one of my old Tamil line cooks, Indy, used to bring in for dinner. His wife would make it for him, and though it was a bit more Continental, a bit more tête du goat (goat head) than the roughly butchered chunks of goat shank and knucklebones served at Caribbean Cuisine, food is all about memory for me, and about wanting what I want when I want it.
I sat there in the dining room, quieter this night, eating my goat with plastic silverware, peeling the stewed meat off the bone and mixing up the side of rice and peas with the leftover sauce until it all had a gumbo consistency perfect for sopping up with big whacks of fresh, buck-a-go cornbread. It wasn't heaven, but it wasn't far off.
I tried to eat there a third time on Labor Day -- but Caribbean Cuisine was closed, the crowds gone, the space silent. I stood at the door, hands cupped around my eyes, staring longingly into the darkened space as if by pure force of will and wanting I could make a cook appear out of nowhere. Someone I could beg -- and I was not above begging -- for a quick something, anything, from the kitchen. If need be, I was willing to throw myself on the mercy of anyone available.
While I waited, my desire for Caribbean Cuisine's cornbread, curry and a cold Jamaican D&G orange soda went from casual wanting to a maddening hunger. Although island dishes are the kitchen's specialty, I also wanted some straight, soul-food mac-and-cheese. I wanted jerk chicken that tasted like jerk chicken, not poulet le jerk or some smartass bit of Island-American fusion run amok. I wanted a plate of Mala chicken stir-fry (itself a bit of fusion, an odd Cuban/Chinese/Jamaican riff on the chopped chicken, red beans and rice combo common to every peasant comfort cuisine, this version kicked up with sofrito spices, peppers and onions all fried together in the pan). I wanted some fried plantains, even though Caribbean Cuisine's plantains can be a bit dodgy -- sometimes perfect, hot and buttery; sometimes tough and mealy. I wanted the oxtail, its smoky, greasy, black sauce enough to dirty up a whole mountain of white rice. And though I would've been eternally grateful for even one of the kitchen's fried-from-frozen Jamaican beef patties, I also would've been moved to murder if there were only one left and someone else was standing between me and it. The things taste like giant Cheese Nips, the orange dough stuffed with beef and onions and cayenne and herbs ground fine into a paste -- like a shepard's pie without the potatoes, like a Brit meat pie just back from a trip to Cuba and still hanging onto the ghost flavors of picadillo.
I got back in my car fuming, actually angry that this hard-laboring family had taken Labor Day off. Sure, I only had to wait a day to taste Caribbean Cuisine's food again. I knew they'd be open again the next day, when I could have anything my bloated and cholesterol-choked little heart desired. But I'm an American city boy, born and bred with the notion of instant gratification as my birthright, so not being able to have what I wanted immediately was driving me crazy with greed and craving.
You can measure how much you love a restaurant by how it makes you feel when you step inside, by how fondly you remember meals gone by, or by how a meal there can make you remember great meals had elsewhere. You can judge the effect any restaurant has on you by imagining how you would take the news of its closing, how you would respond to knowing that you could never get X again, or Y cooked by chef Z. Or, like me, you can scale your love for a place by wondering what sort of crimes you'd be willing to commit in order to get something -- an appetizer, an entree, just a taste of jerk sauce licked off the fingers -- right at that moment.
And while saying that I would've murdered someone over a meat pie is an obvious (if only slight) exaggeration, I did check the lock on Caribbean Cuisine's front door, then drove around to see if there was a back way in, before I finally gave up and headed home to wait.
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