As autumn marches toward winter and colder weather wraps the region in its frigid embrace, thoughts of the sunny Caribbean dance in our heads like visions of sugar-plums and other happy things.
Mention the Caribbean, and chances are you’ll think of white-sand beaches, cruise ships, sun-tans, strong drinks served in coconut shells, and balmy relaxation. Tourism, after all, is the No. 1 economic driver for the region, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and the people of the 700 islands that make up the Caribbean archipelago are working to recover from the damage dealt by Hurricanes Irma and Maria this summer as quickly as they can. For Puerto Rico, Barbuda and a few others, sadly, that’s going to take a very long time.
While we wait, here’s good news: Caribbean restaurants are blossoming in the metro.
So at least we can enjoy their bright, flavorful dishes without having to buy airline or cruise tickets. Here are three to put on your list: In the West End, Roof Top Grill (at 708 Louis Coleman Jr Drive, 785-4069) offers us a taste of Jamaica. Clarksville’s Naila’s Caribbean Cuisine (1370 Veterans Parkway, 725-0399) serves up pan-Caribbean fare with a touch of the immigrant flavors of India that light up the cuisine of Trinidad and other Caribbean nations. In Beechmont, please welcome Caribbean Cafe, a recent arrival that cooks up the food of Haiti with warm welcomes and friendly smiles.
I hope to get around to all three before long, but thought I’d catch up with Caribbean Cafe first, both because it’s Louisville’s first taste of Haitian food, and because of its inviting location on the lovable block of Woodlawn Avenue between South Third Street and Southern Parkway, which is surely one of Louisville’s most intriguingly diverse communities.
Caribbean Cafe’s good-size storefront room is painted in bold greens and yellows, with folk art on the wall and two flat-screen televisions, one usually turned to CNN with the volume up, another to soccer with the volume off. Pale-green tabletops and comfortable wooden chairs fill the room, and you place your order at a high counter at the back of the room.
The menu, by the way, is in English, with some additional information in Haitian Creole, which is close enough to French that with a bit of background en Français, you can generally figure it out. Not that there’s a need, as the helpful staff all speak American English.
Almost twenty main dishes come in generous portions and include abundant sides of fried plantains, rice and beans. Prices range from $6 (for a half-dozen jerk chicken wings, a salute to the iconic cuisine of neighboring Jamaica) to $19 (for a large portion of fried red snapper.) That’s “Pwason” in Creole – sound it out for a French chuckle). Weekday specials knock several bucks off each day’s dish, and sides run $2 or $3.
No alcohol is served, but a cooler box holds an intriguing array of Caribbean sodas, including such curiosities as Vita Malt, a non-alcoholic malt beverage; a bright orange mango-carrot soda; a non-alcoholic tropical-fruit “champagne,” and more. We shared a tall can of coconut water with one meal; another time I enjoyed a Tiano Estilo Cachoo Caribbean mavi bark soda from the Dominican Republic, a dark, bittersweet drink that tasted like artisanal root beer flavored with sorghum and brown sugar.
We enjoyed one lunch visit so much that we came back another day for more.
As is typical of goat dishes, a bowl of stewed goat (cabrit et sauce, $13.50), pictured above, comprised bony, fatty, gristly bite-size chunks of very flavorful meat. It was tasty, not too tough, with the fatty richness that’s characteristic of goat meat; it was not overly gamy but definitely boasted a strong meaty flavor. Even better was its rich, intense bath of flavorful broth.
A small order of fried chicken (poulet frit, $6.95) proved to be a order of four very large whole wings – apparently the kitchen ran out of leg portions – not breaded but very crisply fried. The meat was firm and sizzling, well prepared if a bit on the bland side; we weren’t able to find much evidence of its promised “island spice marinade.”
Mais moulin ($3.99) was hearty and filling, a polenta-like dish with Caribbean flavor, coarse cornmeal cooked into a thick gruel, loaded with red beans and elusive Haitian spice. More of this was rolled into long cylinders and long-simmered with chunks of carrot, potato and peppers in a hearty winter soup, mais moulin ak pwa ($10.99, available Saturdays only).
Haitian-style choux sauté ($2) and rice with bean sauce ($3) were meal-size side dishes. The cabbage was cooked just right, soft but not flaccid, with red and yellow bell peppers and just a whiff of piquant heat. A mound of perfect rice came alongside a savory bean soup that you’re invited to pour over the rice for a bowl full of comfort.
Two filling lunches, with bags of leftovers to take home, were $22.11 plus a $5 tip, and $24.38 plus a $6 tip. We’ll be back.
317 W. Woodlawn Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 85 points