Caribbean Creole

Jan 26, 2012

Writer Ian McNulty  checks out the West Bank restaurant Taste of the Caribbean 

At first, it’s hard to guess the ethnic identity at work at the West Bank restaurant Taste of the Caribbean. But once you start looking at the various translations for dishes printed on its menu, things become obvious. Grilled fish, for instance, is listed first in English, second in Spanish but then, also, in Haitian Creole. 

The Haitian twist is what makes all the difference across this menu of Creole-flavored Caribbean soul, and it’s certainly what makes this tiny restaurant worth seeking out at the back of a Gretna strip mall.

Just a few dishes here appear exotic – fried goat, for instance, or curried conch. But even good old grilled chicken is different, thanks to the robust and distinctive bouquet of Haitian seasoning. The meat is practically panéed with a finely ground blend redolent with thyme, cilantro, lemon, peppers and, most of all, garlic.

Then there’s the gumbo, initially seeming a familiar enough version with sausage, abundant crab and itsy bitsy shrimp. But there’s something different about the deep-brown roux, something busier, fuller and spicier than the New Orleans Creole gumbo that it still does closely resemble, like a relative once removed. 

This is the handiwork of Elianne Charles, who runs the restaurant with her husband and their adult children. The family emigrated from Haiti back in the 1980s, eventually settling in New Orleans. They opened Taste of the Caribbean in 2010, and though it’s their first restaurant it’s also the continuation, in a way, of a restaurant Elianne’s grandmother ran on the home island for years.

Many of the dishes here share fundamentals. There’s the subtly-sweet rice cooked with red beans and also the pikliz, a habanero-spiked coleslaw that’s so intense it must be used sparingly as a garnish rather than spooned up like a side dish. 

The mellowing rice and the zap of that pikliz work best in concert with the kitchen’s heartier dishes – the curried oxtails, or the fried hunks of pork shoulder called griot. My favorite is probably the grilled snapper, served intact from tail to eyes, its skin charred and crusted with sea salt. With rice, a salad and logs of crispy yucca, it’s a whole-fish feast that takes two trays to deliver to the table.

Be aware that eating at Taste of the Caribbean will bring some common hallmarks of the first-generation, family-run restaurant, which can be endearing or annoying depending on your mood. Service is more like what you’d get at someone’s home than the result of a hospitality training program, and you get the feeling Elianne would rather just have you watch her cook in the kitchen than explain menu nuisances over your table.

There’s no bar, but on the right day your meal might include a sample of some heady, homemade coconut drink decanted from a recycled vodka bottle. And a new sauce might appear halfway through the meal if you show any enthusiasm at all for hot spice. One of these turned out to be an utterly delicious, oily, salty, rust-colored slurry just seething with garlic, strung with herbs and fortified with chicken bones.

As always when exploring an unfamiliar cuisine, showing a little enthusiasm, or at least respectful interest, is the key learning the ropes.

Taste of the Caribbean

505 Gretna Blvd., Gretna, 504-265-8946