Caribbean Flavor loads up your plate with island staples
If Caribbean Flavor has somehow flown below your culinary radar, you might just be forgiven. The stretch of 46th Street between College and Keystone that surrounds this corner lunch counter isn’t exactly a posh and thriving commercial district. Driving through here, you may want to step on the gas. Makeshift businesses and dormant storefronts line the fissured, sunken sidewalks. A thrift store with miscellaneous junk pushed up against the door bears a sign that reads, curiously, “Wed — thru Saturday. Weather permitting.” Another sign at Christian Jubilee House of Worship beckons, “If you need, or desire prayer, come in.” The color-washed walls of La Te Da Catering break up the pervading grays, but the menacing gridwork on the windows of a nearby Village Pantry reminds you just how tough this neighborhood can be. Is it any wonder most motorists take northbound thoroughfares to flashier shops a few miles up?
But fancy façades don’t equal flavorful food, as gastronomic scavengers well know. Stop by this part of town on a Thursday or Friday afternoon, and you may see a Cadillac Escalade or two parked on Norwaldo Avenue and a bustle of hungry diners around the door of what most folks refer to as “The Flava,” in its own way one of the cheeriest international eateries in the city. Come early, though they don’t open until noon, and you’ll soon be on a first-name basis with Vere and Daphne, who will pile your plate high with what they’ve cooked up that day: maybe spicy jerk chicken or tender curried goat, festive yellow rice with red beans or fried plantains. Just be sure to bring an appetite.
While this place has been open for years, with a catering business known not just for its main dishes but its delicious desserts, never has there been more of an imperative to get here for lunch or an early takeout dinner. With Vere appropriately occupied early in the week with coursework in the baking and pastry arts program at Ivy Tech, the two women have reduced their operating days to Thursday through Saturday. So, while you’ll have to stave off your cravings on Monday or Wednesday with dreams of your last trip to the islands, you can certainly get your fill later in the week. Vere beams as she talks about the elaborate cakes she’s prepared not only at Ivy Tech but in her own kitchens at Caribbean Flavor. But while she’s diversifying her skills, she and Daphne will still be making the foods of the Caribbean, with nods to their native Trinidad, in some form or another for the foreseeable future. Indy is definitely the better for their perseverance.
Caribbean Flavor may be one of the most barebones establishments in the city, but there’s a refreshing lack of pretense here. Don’t look for any Bob Marley T-shirts or sunny beach scenes depicted on the walls. A boom box may play some native music, but the emphasis here is on the food. Indeed, on a recent visit, the food was about all there was. Chairs had been requisitioned for a party the night before. Pushing the restaurant’s two tables up against the window, we soon found some adequate seating on a ledge. Soon, some old chairs without backs appeared, then a whole truckload of chairs, then, suddenly, a lunch crowd and a festive spirit the neighborhood sorely needed on a drizzly January day.
“Caribbean” food may make you think of Scotch bonnet peppers and palate-scorching jerks, but the food here is more hearty than hot. Meats are well-seasoned and slow-stewed so that they are utterly tender and moist. If goat’s on the steam table, get it, as it’s wonderfully fragrant and rich, easily sliding off its somewhat plentiful bones. Dark-meat turkey, a bit of a surprise, is nothing at all like your grandmother’s parched holiday bird. This has a succulence and a rich gravy you’ll pine for next Thanksgiving. Chicken comes in many different forms — in a slightly sweet and piquant jerk version, with plenty of aromatic spices; in an Indian-inspired boneless curry; and simply stewed on the bone. All are equally delicious. Most lunch dishes run from $6.75 to no more than $8.75.
Side dishes, two of which are included with all entrees, include some of the tastiest and heartiest rice around, filled with plenty of beans that don’t lose their integrity in the mix. A mix of cabbage and veggies is crisp and quite fresh tasting — as is all the food here — and hot-from-the-oven cornbread is some of the most moist and tasty that you’ll ever eat. Plantains can be a bit soggy, though perfectly sweet. The charm of the place is that you never know what will be coming out from the kitchen. Just when you think you’re done, you might just have enough room for a Jamaican beef patty. For your waist’s sake, maybe it’s good this place is only open three days a week.
1901 E. 46th St.
Thursday: noon-6 p.m.
Friday: noon-7 p.m.
Saturday: Noon-6 p.m.
Food : Four stars
Atmosphere : Two and a half stars
Service : Four stars