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Posts from the ‘Caribbean’ Category

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Bahama Breeze

The shtick: The Caribbean comes to the suburbs, one pineapple coconut martini at a time.
The signatures: Indiscriminate usage of descriptors Island, Creole, Cuban, and Jamaican, and an unusually long list of appetizers and snacks, i.e. “Caribbean inspired tapas.”
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Truffled yuca fries with guava ketchup.

Bahama facade

The suburbs can soften you, or at least tame rough edges. Normally, I disapprove of children at bars or hour-long waits to be seated, yet concessions must be made for novel experiences. Bahama Breeze, the Darden brand that no one knows about—there are only 30 locations nationwide—is special in its scarceness.

So, I got to know the eight-year-old (he could’ve been a mature four or a shrunken 12–I can’t tell children’s ages) who wanted to compare iPhones and show me his Facebook friends while sitting at the bar with his parents. Even though the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, the family were old pros. The father who struck me as a contractor, a foreman, old enough to now delegate manual labor, was not one to waste words, but the mother was a talker and was quick to explain which drinks were stronger and which were pretty but weak (The Bahamarita).

I unwittingly picked the most expensive cocktail (chosen because it seemed the least fruity/sweet, likely to use premade mix) a Caipirinha , but don’t worry, it was only $8.69. 20-ounce house beer is only $4.29 by comparison (I am still reeling over the $6.25 Sam Adams at the Red Lobster across the highway).  It’s not all blenders and Captain Morgan’s either–Gosling Black Seal Rum and Pussers’s Dark Rum also make their way into a Dark and Stormy and Painkiller, though the latter may be controversial with New Yorkers since the Lower East Side bar, Painkiller, was strong-armed into changing its name. by Pusser’s

Bahama breeze interior

The decor was also more tasteful than I had expected, at least in comparison to the other nearby tropical-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, on the other side of Route 1, similar to how I imagine a Caribbean resort to look ( I have never been to the Caribbean, but I am thinking more Hyatt than Sandals—I still haven’t encountered a Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton-type chain restaurant, though I would like to). Less Hawaiian shirts, neon pinks and turquoises, and rampant wicker, and more warm chocolate tones, restrained thatching, and dark wood. Though not mahogany, which I’d never given any thought to until the day an entertainment reporter called when I was working at the New York Post library to ask, “Is mahogany an upscale wood?”

One of the most unusual things, which isn’t odd on the surface, is their rampant use of pork. Outside of bacon, breakfast sausages and the limited-edition McRib, pork just isn’t commonly used by chain restaurants, though that’s changing. 2011 saw a 7% in pork mentioned on menus. Now, I’d like chains to tackle my other beef: reluctance to serve bone-in chicken.

Bahama breeze sliders

It’s in the chorizo sliders (loose Mexican-style sausage formed into square, springy patties, by the way, not the hard-cured Spanish type, which one might assume considering the inclusion of Spanish cheese) with Manchego.

Bahama breeze plantains

As well as the sweet plantains topped with scoops of pulled pork and a smoky, also-sweet (sweet and salty are the dominating flavors) guava barbecue sauce.

Bahama breeze conch

Anything could’ve been breaded into these fritters—who knows conch from any other shellfish when it’s heavily battered and fried and dipped in a creamy sauce? At least they were striving for regional authenticity.

Bahama breeze pasta

Unlike that old Jamaican favorite, pasta with cream sauce, a.k.a. Calypso shrimp linguine.  That’s the trouble with entrees. It’s easier to play with empanadas, flatbreads, sliders, dips, and wings. Main dishes rely on staid sides, in this case rice, garlic mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes, and pasta. I just ate an appetizer as a main instead.

Bahama breeze to go

Your server might spend an inordinate amount of time with your leftovers and you may see them fussing around with the aluminum containers at their station. But you will be more forgiving when you see that they’ve drawn a picture and thoughtfully dated the creation. Or not.

Bahama Breeze * 520 Woodbridge Center Dr., Woodbridge, NJ

 

Sabrosura

1/2 On the few extended English vacations I’ve taken to visit my sister, I’ve become convinced that my legs were morphing into two stubby chip appendages. It starts with tuber thighs and next thing you know, you’re a human chip butty. Lately, a new starchy vegetable has started taking root on my limbs. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten yuca. And yet after eating at Sabrosura, I’d gotten my third stomach full in four days. I never knew the true meaning of sticks to your ribs until I met this Caribbean staple. I see how it does its job as cheap filling foodstuff but I think it’s wise that I start laying off the yucca fries.

Sabrosura_outside Other than a soft pretzel at the zoo, I’ve never eaten a bite in the Bronx. It’s a whole new frontier begging to be explored (even the Times headed up this week). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Castle Hill but the first thing I laid eyes on after stepping out of the car was a toddler on a leash. Awesome! Just when I’d had it with all the foul Park Slope mom mayhem. No precocious roaming free, self-expression in the Bronx. They probably spank there too. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about loose un-paddled children ruining my Domincan-Chinese meal.

The menu is voluminous (I suggest looking at it online). I didn’t even know where to begin. Take out classics like beef with broccoli? Local stuff like grilled meat with yellow rice and plantains? They call themselves a seafood restaurant, which is supplemented by plastic fish on the wall, netting above a front area that looks like it should be a bar but isn’t. But beyond fried shrimp I’m not sure that seafood is the standard order.

Sabrosura_curryThe guys who seem more in charge are Chinese, the busboys looked Mexican, the clientele was mixed with white couples, Spanish families (I’m using that in the NYC sense, just for fun…when in Rome, though I’m not ever going to say Ore-uh-gone for Oregon) and no Asians. I always wonder how many Chinese actually eat corner “Chinese” food in the city. There’s got to be Mexicans who love Taco Bell.

While nibbling complimentary garlic bread, we decided on chicken curry, chofan and yuca mofongo. Curry is odd because there’s nothing particularly Chinese about it. It ended up being soupy yellow curry in the sense that it’s seasoned with curry powder, closer to Japanese curry than anything, kind of sweet and dotted with peas and carrots. It wasn’t like we were expecting Thai or Malaysian food so this wasn’t shocking. Choice for sides inlcuded maduros, tostones, yucca or rice. We got tostones.

Sabrosura_chofanChofan is their Nuevo Latino fried rice (there are other versions in the Chinese section). I’d just seen Chaufa, a similar dish, on a Peruvian menu. Everyone loves fried rice. This version had the extra additon of chicharrone. We paid the extra $2 for shrimp too. I take excess seriously.

The mofongo is where it got weird. I wanted the version with a side of fried pork chunks that I saw in a laminated flip menu on a little plastic stand. What I ended up with was an unadorned softball of yuca (you’re offered this starch or more typical plantain) in a bowl of gravy. Mofongo will put you into a coma. I’d never even heard of the dish until a few years ago. It’s not like I grew up with any Puerto Ricans, and I wonder if this is something a contemporary Boricua even orders. You don’t see blogs dedicated to mofongo worship (then again, you don’t see many Latin American food blogs period. Asian females seem to have the corner on the I eat and write about it market. I don’t want to generalize so I’ll have to look into this further before coming to conclusions. I think a big part of it is that Latin American blogs don’t tend to be in English, duh. Cooking Diva, a Panamanian blog is one of the few I can think of off the top of my head). Maybe it’s like tuna casserole, an old standard that some people in parts of the country might still eat. Or maybe it’s d.i.y. hip—I found a vegetarian, nay vegan recipe in ReadyMade.

Sabrosura_mofongoWe picked at maybe 1/3 of the mash-blob and had to pack it in. But the leftovers fortified me the next day during a 12-hour work shift where there was no time to take a break. No, I don’t perform manual labor so it’s doubtful I burned off all the carbs but it definitely kept hunger at bay. I recently was given a subscription to a British food magazine and they’re all obsessed with the GI diet over there. I don’t even want to think about where yuca falls on the glycemic index.

Sabrosura * 1200 Castle Hill Ave., Bronx, NY

Salud! Restaurant & Bar

Salud_bean_dip_1 I never intended to eat plantains for three courses at lunch. The plantain chips and bean dip was a freebie. You can partake or not but I’ve never been one to ignore a bread basket or facsimile. That was my first mistake.

It made sense to do the three-course $20 prix fixe since my original plan to order two tapas/appetizers would’ve cost even more. I don’t normally delve into the double digits for a weekday lunch, though I’m unusually frugal by even cheapskate standards. Trying to keep my daily total under $4 usually translates into a tiny midtown soup or bagel. But Salud is at the Seaport, which is an extension of the Financial District. James, who works nearby, didn’t think the prices were out of line.

Salud_stuffed_plantains I shouldn’t gone with my initial instinct and started with ceviche but instead I was swayed by sweet plantains stuffed with spicy beef and monterey jack. It sounded gooey and decadent, but in reality it was starch with barely perceptible dashes of ground meat and cheese. The maduros completely overwhelmed the other flavors.

Garlic shrimp seemed safe, but they didn’t come solo. Oh no, the little crustaceans aligned next to a tidy row of tostones. It’s a good thing I’m not low-carbing it. However, I am trying to eat less and shun sugar, but dessert was part of the meal so I was semi-forced to eat a perfectly acceptable flan (which apparently I enjoyed enough to eat before remembering to take a photo).

Salud_garlic_shrimpThere appears to be a Cuban theme in music and style, but the menu is more of a Caribbean mish mash. I can see Salud being good for happy hour drinks if you worked nearby but it’s not distinctive enough to attract diners from beyond the neighborhood. Now that I think about it, it’s the kind of place that would pop up in my neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) and fail to excite me. Un-hideous but far from amazing.

Salud! Restaurant & Bar * 142 Beekman St., New York, NY

809 Sangria Bar & Grill

1/2 Certain segments of the population like to brag about never setting foot above 14th Street (or somesuch nebulous boundary). Whatever (that’s actually less offputting than those who silently yet resolutely refuse to  venture beyond the 11211 zip code). But if I didn’t work in midtown, it’s not that likely I’d frequent the 40s or higher on a regular basis. Upper Manhattan and the Bronx? Ok, now I’m totally clueless and a little hesitant.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the A train journey up to Inwood for a meal. I wasn’t scared like I thought I was going to be knifed or something, the unknown just makes me nervous. I feel the same way about Staten Island (I like to believe I have a better than average grasp on Brooklyn and Queens). NYC is an insular place. I currently work in a deparment of ALL native New Yorkers, which is pretty rare in my experience (no, I don’t work for the NYPD or FDNY or the city) and I wouldn’t be surprised if many (not all, mind you) of the five were unfamiliar with the neighborhoods outside of where they grew up and/or presently reside. I only know places where friends congregate or where good food lurks.

809_arepa_trio_1My initial impression of Inwood wasn't bad. Of course my only exposure was walking three blocks to and from the Dykeman Avenue station but it seemed akin to Sunset Park or South Slope: a Payless Shoes, H&R Block, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Chinese take out…I’m not sure if there was a Jimmy Jazz or not but there should’ve been. Lots of chains, a little grit, and no signs of gentrification beyond 809 Sangria Bar and Grill, my destination.

You might not even notice it from the street, it’s not flashy. The brightly lit, neon heavy place with sandwiches in the window, next store, made more of an impression. And I’m not sure how well they’re attracting diners (I think they’re doing a good job bringing crowds to the upstairs lounge, which is only open the last few days of the week). Our table was the only one occupied for a spell. Eventually two couples came in and as we were wrapping up a few other groups stopped by, one with like three children under three. Dates, partiers, newborns all welcome.

I’ll admit that the prices are high for the area (my entrée was $24) but it’s not a case of unwarranted gouging. The cooking is creative and the dishes are well thought out. The style borrows from The Domincan Republic (as everyone points out, 809 is the area code in the D.R.) and beyond and manages to avoid boring mango and avocado laced pan-Latino cliches.

809_stuffed_snapperI might’ve gone for a ceviche if I were solo, but the arepa trio topped with tufts of ropa vieja, pork picadillo and shredded chicken were moist and each distinctly flavored.There are two ways to go with entrees: the pick your meat, side and sauce churrasco or opting for seafood. My dining companion (logically chosen as my only friend who lives in the hundreds) has a reputation for being fussy, things that lived in the water or items with bones don’t please her. I was a little nervous but she eventually settled on a medium well skirt steak with yucca fries and three colorful sauces (I couldn’t tell you what they were). She didn’t complain so I’m assuming her meal didn’t completely suck.

I was pleased with the pargo relleno, a whole crispy-skin red snapper stuffed with a seafood risotto. The lightly spiced echilado-coconut sauce tasted slightly Thai, which I loved. Sometimes, I forget the lime, coconut and chiles similarities between Southeast Asia and the Carribean.

I totally didn’t need an 809 Mojito (rum, apple pucker, peach schnapps, fresh plums and peaches) and tres leches cake. My teeth almost rotted out. I’m trying to learn moderation in 2007, though it’s slow going. I pretended that I was being healthy by only eating half my fish, never mind that it was fried and doused in creamy saturated fat.

809_tres_leches_cakeOn my (long) way home, I decided that they’re nice in Inwood. As we were heading into the subway station, a guy on his way out gave me his soon-to-expire Metrocard (this may not seem like a big deal if you’re an unlimited buyer but I’ll gladly accept the $2 gift since I’m a pay per ride gal). The train was already at the platform as we were approaching the bottom of the stairs and a guy held the doors for us. Annoying when you’re in the car, yes, but it wasn’t rush hour and the train was practically empty since it was the second stop from the end of the line. Syrupy cocktails and a few glasses of Shiraz tend to cloud my thinking in more ways than one, they also have a way of inducing rare warm, fuzzy, mankind is ok feelings. I like people so much more when I have a few drinks in my system.

So, if you ever find yourself around W. 200th Street and are craving lamb chops, onion confit, balsamic panela reduction and ajillo mashed potatoes rather than cuchifritos, 809 is probably a good choice.

809 Sangria Bar & Grill * 112 Dyckman St., New York, NY

Peppa’s Jerk Chicken

It doesn't seem right, but I don't think I've ever had jerk chicken. Real, fake, or anything in between. So, to become acquainted I thought I should start at the top. I really need to dig into that strip of Flatbush Ave. with West Indian everything. Bakes, doubles, roti, I don't know that food well and it's not because I don't want to (I love how doubles is singular like a McGriddles). I'd read about both Danny Express and Peppa's, which are a block apart and used to be one restaurant Danny and Pepper (food feuds seem rampant in NYC). I didn't have the appetite to try both, so I'll have to return for Danny (and the fascinating De Bamboo Express across the street. I thought Chino-Cuban and Indian-Chinese were it, but Trini-Chinese is crazy–they have freaking jerk lo mein on the menu. I'm also curious what "provisions soup" is).

Peppas_jerk I wasn't sure how to order, as there were maybe five different prices listed for the jerk chicken. James said large, which I think was the $10 choice. I do know that the total bill was $12 and we had two ginger beers and I'm guessing the sodas were closer to $1 apiece than $2, though I could be wrong and we ordered the $8 portion of poultry. You get a round aluminum take out container filled with rice and beans topped with hacked up chicken and a little salad wedged into the corner. Before they pack it up (it's a bare bones take out joint with a counter and no seats) you can sauce your bird. They offer bbq sauce, which is odd and the scotch bonnet sauce, which makes more sense.

I think James went a little wild with the hot sauce, so it's hard to offer a true flavor profile of the meat. Obviously, there was an overwhelming spicy hit at first, but underneath a sweet, peppery woody taste emerged. I'm not sure what I had expected, but the chicken was far tastier than I'd anticipated. We definitely could've eaten more than we ordered. Initially, it looked like too much to eat, but that was because the rice and beans take up the bulk of the container. Normally, I'm pretty so-so on rice and beans but these were particularly appealing with a thick and smooth mouth texture. All I can guess is that there must've been lard or animal fat of some kind in them.

I was recently in a meeting at work and we were discussing our potential client, a chain restaurant that was failing with their Caribbean food concept and I don't have much hope for this pitch because everyone was clueless and asking what Caribbean food is and someone said jambalaya, which is retarded and then another said jerk, which prompted another to wrinkle up her nose and make a disgusted face. And all I could think was why am I in a room with these people (I've had this thought countless times before)? There's no way that someone who had eaten Peppa's jerk chicken would be able to scowl like that.

Peppa's Jerk Chicken * 738 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn

El Mundo


This place is confusing. Fried chicken is a part of their name, yet fried chicken doesnt appear to be in the restaurant. Not that they dont like to fry every other morsel of meat. Chicharrones, and all sorts of crispy bits are on display. But I had to eat rotisserie chicken since that was the name of the game with my New York Post piece on the best Latin chicken in NYC. The pollo was fine, but I really wanted that fried pork.

El Mundo Fried Chicken * 4456 Broadway, New York, NY

El Malecon

Not that I'm an expert on Washington Heights Caribbean food, but I'd never heard of this place before. It seems to have a loyal following and was suggested for my New York Post piece on the best Latin chicken. So, include it I did.

El Malecon * 4141 Broadway, NewYork, NY

Cafe Con Leche

1/2 I don't care how many Seinfeld reruns I see, the Upper West Side scares me. I know that's not a fair assessment of this restaurant. In fact, my cubano was perfectly fine. It's just that I feel out of sorts when I'm in this neck of the woods, and even numerous bottles of Negro Modelo won't help. But if I'm ever attending a Christmas performance in the west 80s by my boyfriend's coworker's choir, I wouldn't be averse to popping in for some pernil.

Caf Con Leche * 424 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY

Spanish American Food

Saturday afternoon the urge for a Cuban sandwich struck me and fortunately I knew there was a take out joint just two blocks from James's apartment. I got a little nervous when we placed our order and everyone in line behind us seemed to be getting their food in rapid succession. After the previous evening's torturous wait at Lupa, I started wondering if maybe we had become invisible or repulsive to waitstaff without even realizing it.

At least the wait allowed me to check out the menu on the wall. I was intrigued by the soup variations–there was a chicken, yet also an old hen and a beef in addition to a cow. Not to mention the feet soup. We eventually got our Cubanos, and though large, I managed to eat mine in no time while James stashed his away for later.

Luckily, his bird-like appetite benefited me. I'm staying at his place while he's away for the holidays and about two hours ago I was poking around the refrigerator for something tasty (it's too cold to go out and I don't feel like buying groceries anyway) when I spied that half Cubano. I debated over the ethics of eating someone's leftovers, but it wouldn't be any good by the time he got back anyway. My only regret is that there wasn't more left.

Spanish American Food 351 E. 13th, New York, NY