Calabash Cafe Whisks You to the Caribbean
2015 Manor Rd., 478-4857
Mon, 11am-3pm; Tue-Thu, 11am-10pm;
Fri & Sat, 11am-11pm
What would you do if you found yourself resettled in a foreign country without ready access to your native cuisine? Suffer in silence, try to dine regularly in the homes of similarly displaced countrymen, or open a restaurant featuring the authentic cuisine of your homeland hoping the public would develop a taste for it as well? The five founders of Calabash Cafe soon tired of options one and two, and decided to create a spot where we can all enjoy the foods of the eastern Caribbean along with them. Though Mike Caton of Trinidad, Margaret Reid of Jamaica, Dr. Aziz Laurent of Dominica, Nneka Laurent of St. Kitts, and Savatri Saldana of Trinidad had no previous restaurant experience, they pooled their appetites and talents and came up with a winning proposition. Calabash Cafe is a delightful place to dine on the hearty peasant food of the islands, relaxing with festive rum drinks on the decks or amid walls of sunwashed blue and peach. Come to the islands, mon. Fifteen years ago this month, I visited friends in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and have hungered for a return there ever since. Recent meals at Calabash are as close as I can get for the moment. Seated in the pleasant, casual dining room not long ago, I felt the grey, dreary evening outside slip away to a calypso beat and found myself back in the tropics, for an hour at least. The meal began with Jamaican Patties ($2.95), hearty turnovers stuffed with spicy beef, chicken, or vegetables, and an order of Fried Plantains ($1.95), a staple of many Caribbean, Central, and South American cuisines. The beef patty offered several juicy bites in a simple, flaky crust, with the slightly sweet and starchy plantains as a pleasant counterpoint.
Our entrée choices on that visit were equally satisfying. Roti is a soft, rather spongy Indian flat bread which can serve as a wrapper for various fillings or a side dish to be used somewhat like flour tortillas. The Calabash version offers Roti stuffed with a curried mixture of peas and potatoes ($4.95), with the choice of adding chicken ($6.95), beef ($7.95), or shrimp ($8.95) to the spicy filling. The seafood variety is wonderful, packed with plump, perfectly cooked shrimp matched with the tasty curry sauce and toothsome vegetables. Another winning option is the Pelau ($6.50 with chicken, $5.50 with vegetables), a traditional island dish of rice and pigeon peas cooked in coconut milk with a blend of spices. The rice mixture is studded with large, moist chunks of savory chicken, making a true peasant feast. The Jerk Pork ($8.95) is listed as the manager's favorite and that is understandable once you've sampled it. Pork loin is rubbed with the Calabash signature jerk seasoning, a top-secret combination of herbs and spices, grilled to tender perfection and served on a bed of rice and pigeon peas.
On another visit, the kitchen had run out of the Shrimp and Potato Cake ($6.50) appetizer on which I had my eye, and the eager waiter suggested I substitute Jerk Wings ($3.95) instead. I hesitated, anticipating the puny little pre-packaged meatless wings and/or drumettes that so often appear on appetizer menus. I need not have worried, because the Calabash wings are marvelous: huge, fresh-cut wings with the meaty drum piece still attached. They're slathered in the fiery house jerk sauce and quite a challenge to eat. This is not a dish to order when you're dining with someone you need to impress with your table manners. Dig right in and make a delicious, sloppy mess. Be aware that the warmth of the jerk seasoning may leave your mouth and fingers tingling, and remember to wipe your face and hands often.
The only menu disappointment I've encountered at Calabash was an order of Caribbean Style Fried Fish and Chips ($8.95), which is described in the menu as a filet of fish marinated in lime, cloves, garlic, thyme, and other spices, and fried in a crisp coating. My serving gave no evidence of a flavorful marinade and was just a rather ordinary piece of fried catfish with a side of fries. There wasn't anything really wrong with it, but there wasn't anything special or Caribbean about it, either. It's only a minor glitch in an otherwise delightful bill of fare.
When the Caribbean contingent of partners took over the former Cafe Armageddon to create Calabash Cafe, they brightened the paint job, installed ceiling fans, and hung bright artworks with island themes. The tables are set with cloths and flowers, but the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with friendly service. One of the smartest things they did was to add a full bar resembling the ones that dot all the island beaches and specializing in the festive rum drinks that are synonymous with Caribbean recreation. Relax with a Red Stripe beer, Calypso rum punch, or a Ting-a-ling, and it's easy to imagine yourself on a Caribbean beach, dining on authentic dishes from one of the world's most fascinating culinary crossroads.
4101 Guadalupe, 451-7170
Daily, 10am-6pm; Thu until 9pm
I'm exceedingly suspicious of sloppy joes. Sandwiches with such a name take me back to the Fellowship Hall of my childhood church, where youth meals often featured the dripping affairs made with a couple cans of generic brand chili, a spice envelope, and an additional helping of ground beef. But NeWorlDeli, a friendly little place inside the Hyde Park Market, has brought new meaning to the sloppy joe. Their menu lists four such "deliciously messy" sandwiches and further defines them as triple deckers layered with turkey, ham, or roast beef, topped with Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing, and served on fresh Jewish rye. In the case of NeWorlDeli's sloppy joe, even that updated definition doesn't do the sandwich justice.
The story goes that the deli's owner could never shake the memory of devouring these heaping sandwiches as a kid growing up in Jersey, so he came up with his own version. The sloppy joes he makes now are indeed triple deckers, layered onto a dense, chewy, house baked Jewish rye. The Russian dressing bears little resemblance to the orange stuff Seven Seas makes, and is instead a light, slightly tangy liquid that manages to moisten everything without disintegrating the bread. The cole slaw (something else I'm exceedingly suspicious of), is the best I've ever eaten, really. There's no mistaking its freshness, and the ribbons of well-seasoned purple and white cabbage -- thankfully -- are not smothered in creamy mayonnaise. I could go on about the sandwich's virtues, but suffice it to say that I consider it the best sandwich in town.
NeWorlDeli's menu, of course, extends beyond the sloppy joe. There are soups and salads, wraps, hot sandwiches, and more traditional cold ones. Side orders include homemade potato, pasta, and fruit salads, cole slaw, and hummus. In the wrap department, the Hawaiian wrap -- a roll of chicken, brown rice, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, and mango salsa -- is a good choice, but be sure to ask for an extra squirt of salsa. Transplanted Yankees will find comfort in the sizable meatball and sausage heros and the pastrami, corned beef, and cheesesteak offerings, too. I can't vouch yet for the eggplant parmigiana sandwich, but it's a nod to the vegetarian community, as is a tofu-free veggie wrap.
In the way of atmosphere, expect to find a cozy lunch counter, its textured, tinted walls lined with local art, and a staff ready to talk. The owner in particular is a storyteller, but if you've no time to talk or listen, you can get your food to go, and be back at your own table in no time, tearing into a sandwich you likely won't forget soon either. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry
Spiro's Market Deli
2810 Guadalupe, #5, 477-8899
Fri & Sat, 11am-12am
A relatively new food entry on the Drag, Spiro's Market Deli serves hot and cold sandwiches, deli pitas, pasta dinners (with salad and garlic bread), and a handful of vegetarian combinations until midnight on weekends and 11pm weekdays. The deli's motto is "The Best Sandwich You'll Ever Have... Period," a claim I'll have to argue with, although the place certainly seems to please collegiate men, who arrived en masse during my visit to order the hearty grilled sandwiches and no-frills pasta dinners.
Spiro's decor is, in at least one instance, indicative of its food. Huge cans of tomato sauce are used first as ornament before they make their way into the kitchen to be ladled over grilled sandwiches with abandon along with canned mushrooms and pre-diced bell pepper. The sandwiches are plentiful, the combos in particular layered with Italian cold cuts like Mortadella and Genoa Salami -- not your standard Drag fare. And the creations are tasty, with hot versions like the dripping Italian on a white sub bun, long on the comfort food factor, if short on homemade -- read: fresh -- ingredients.
The pitas and cold combos get better marks in the fresh department. They, too, often feature out-of-the ordinary sandwich meats, from pepperoni and Canadian bacon to peppered beef and bologna, and come served topped with lettuce, tomato, and provolone cheese. Stuffed to overflowing, they aren't sandwiches for the small of appetite.
My feeling about Spiro's is that it's a spot that will win over folks primarily in search of sustenance. The deli's hefty sandwiches are dependably hearty. But as for the best sandwich I've ever had? I don't think so.