Over the years, I’ve heard “tastes like chicken,” or some variation of it, used to describe any number of things, and not all of them food-related. From particularly bland frogs’ legs to the music of Yanni, chicken has come to embody everything boring and unchallenging. Poor bird.
But before you pity the poultry, head to South 52nd Street and bring home an order of Brown Sugar Bakery and Cafe’s curry chicken.
A brief bit of history of Trinidad and Tobago that will likely shed some light on the cuisine—after Columbus claimed the islands for Spain in 1498, the southmost islands in the Caribbean had a variety of European influences, obvious enough if you look at city names: San Fernando, Edinburgh, Chaguanas, Hindustan, Louis D’Or, O’Meara, Pointe-à-Pierre, Scarborough, etc. The islands were under British control when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833; unsurprisingly, this caused a labor shortage, and plantation owners brought over a ton of Indian indentured servants to fill it. Today, about two out of five people in the commonwealth are Indo-Trinidadian and two out of five are Afro-Trinidadian, descendents of freed slaves and their Indian replacements.
Now, back to the food. Open the Styrofoam container and breathe in: This is the smell of the more tropical climes in heaven—a perfume of curry powder, a whiff of scallion, twists of thyme and celery and garlic with a gentle fanning of spice heat. It’s carried by fall-from-the-bone-tender chicken, pinkish in the center from its perfectly temperate stint on the stovetop, and imbued with the seasoning’s savor throughout. By this metric, “tastes like chicken” could be used to describe the films of Fellini and the music of Coltrane—complex and deeply rewarding. That’s the kind of experience this storefront provides, and with each dish, I kept coming back to a completely made-up compound word: I was mouth-happy.
For $11, you’d expect an order of red snapper to be anchored by a filet of some sort. Not here. Instead, you’re given the whole fish, from the puckery little mouth to the curled-up tail, all seasoned with curry powder and stewed in a heady broth of tomato, bell pepper, onion and garlic. Removing the meat from the skeleton takes some doing, but it’s worth the effort—from the soft, wrinkly skin to the deep savor of the meat itself, this is a fish that tastes both of its stewing liquid as well as of its briny origins.
Goat roti, while half a step down, was still excellent, a more cartilaginous chew with a darker, funkier character. It benefited most from the roti skin, a massive, homemade crepe-like vessel that grounded each bite. Channa (chickpea) and potato roti, an excellent vegetarian option, should have been too starchy. But (as with so much here), it worked by virtue of its layering and the different roles the components played. Channa carried the perfume and spice heat, while the fork-tender potatoes acted as coolants.
Side dishes were anything but the usual afterthoughts. Rice and peas just made me angry: I’ve been missing out on the real Trinidadian deal my entire life. Its umber color was a visual reference to fried rice, and the sweetness and richness of peas browned in burnt sugar and oil were infinitely better and more interesting than the usual gloppy assembly of starchy rice and sad beans. Steamed cabbage with garlic, peppers and onions had attained a texture similar to well-cooked fettuccine, and, like the noodle, absorbed its liquid beautifully. String beans sauteed with garlic and tomatoes had the dull green color generally found in a can, but the dizzyingly evocative flavors were from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Even the humble-appearing patties packed a punch. Beef patty, encased in a taut, delicately sweeter pastry, softly simmered in the mouth with a front-of-the-tongue spice heat that’s grounded by the earthier notes of the meat. Vegetable patty—cabbage, corn, carrots—was carried by a whiter shell; its spice spread over a broader swath of the palate, disproving the assumption that vegetarian dishes are necessarily less interesting than the carnivore’s counterparts.
As this is a bakery, desserts are understandably well-executed. Coconut roll, texturally similar to a very soft biscotti or soft-baked Jewish mandel bread, only hinted at its marquee component—a nice change from the usual coconutty bludgeoning of such dishes. Cassava pone nodded in the direction of carrot cake, but found its footing on far more interesting ground, its soft, cakey texture snapped to life by cassava, coconut, pumpkin and generous aromatic spicing.
If you eat in at one of the handful of booths (under the watchful eye of the Obamas, Lord Kitchener and Bugsy Sharpe, among others), pair this miraculous and miraculously affordable food with one of the many herbal and other Caribbean drinks on offer—Baba Roots Herbal Drink, Original Blend Roots Drink, Malta Carib, Ting. But Brown Sugar is primarily a takeout spot; as such, if you’re taking out, your roti skins will be wrapped separately from their intended fillings, and the slow steaming of ingredients in their foam containers will do nothing to diminish their impact.
The only risk is that you’ll start eating it before you get home. Don’t fight it: Whether it tastes like chicken or something else, you’re in for a treat.
219 S. 52nd St.
Hours: Daily, 9am-10pm.
Atmosphere: Resembles a diner’s bakery counter area, but with an array of garlic, hot sauces and CD selections to choose from.
Service: Very happy to explain anything you’re unfamiliar with.
Food: Lusty, comforting and soul-satisfying.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014