Patrons return often to enjoy their favorite dishes at this authentic Trinidad restaurant.
Marla Jadoonanan and her husband, Ian, tried their damnedest to explain the intricacies of Trinidad and Tobago cuisine. At a strange intersection of Latin, French, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian, but also heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, the island nation has invented a curry all its own. Words like “fruity” and “fragrant” were tossed about, along with a more definite “spicy.” Despite the assertive flavors that make their way into any of Marla’s dishes, they also have a lightness that one doesn’t find in traditional Indian food.
The Jadoonanans both are from Trinidad. Marla immigrated to the United States when she was 15. It was a difficult adjustment. After spending 18 years as a nurse, the time had come to fulfill her real passion—preparing the traditional foods of her home country.
The restaurant is a family effort, with all the friendliness and quirkiness that comes with it. The interior decor is casual, its patrons are loyal, and the portions are astronomical.
Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine often is praised as a take-out restaurant, and I can see why. If you adore spicy food, it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d want to eat in front of the television after a numbing, exhausting day.
A devoted patron one table over insisted that we try the Ginger Beer ($2.99)—a British invention, originally fermented, that quickly became popular in the former island colonies. We used it to wash down our Doubles ($2), a traditional street food featuring curried beans tucked between two pieces of fried bread. Ours arrived wrapped in aluminum foil, which was very helpful in keeping the ingredients from spilling out the back and sides with each bite. They may be green, squishy, and wrapped in foil, but our Doubles were absolutely delicious to the point of addiction.
Marla’s has a small kitchen, and meals are made to order, but the pace began moving quickly after the Doubles, beginning with Callaloo Chicken ($12), then moving to Jerk Chicken ($10), Chicken Wings ($8), Red Beans and Rice ($3), and Chicken Pelau ($10). Callaloo is a green, soupy dish served over rice. Its ingredients can vary, but here, it was a thick blend of okra, spinach, coconut milk, and spices, with your choice of meat. If you’re craving authentic jerk chicken, however, your first visit to Marla’s really should focus there.
Many local eateries offering jerk don’t marinate chicken in the seasoning, but only dab it on during the cooking process. But authentic jerk chicken requires the spices to penetrate more deeply into the meat. The result is spicy and smoky, but without overpowering the flavor of the chicken. In fact, this delicate balance was maintained with every dish that came out of Marla’s kitchen—no small feat, considering the assertiveness of island spices. Even the Red Beans and Rice was remarkably robust.
If you’re wary of spice, ask your server to make your order mild, not medium. Alternatively, you may find comfort in the rice and pigeon peas-based pelau, or the fairly mild Curry Goat ($12). However, if you’re a die-hard fan of ghost pepper sauce, it also can be found at Marla’s.
Many of these dishes, such as Callaloo, also serve as handy fillings for West Indian Roti—soft, unleavened flat breads that can be rolled up like a burrito. Just as I was contemplating doing so with the last bit of empty stomach space I had left, however, Marla recommended that I try the child-friendly Brown Down ($10) with chicken. Its tangy, somewhat sweet broth, begun with caramelized sugar, traditionally is served over rice.
Incredibly, after all the flavors to come out of her kitchen, Marla confesses that her favorite guilty pleasure is a good gas station hot dog, and that even her own family gets tired of eating their restaurant’s food too often. I can understand the dilemma: They constantly are tasting and adjusting their dishes, as Marla’s cooking process is more by instinct and practice than by measuring spoon. Many of their Minnesota patrons come in multiple times a week for their favorite dishes, so even if her husband guiltily sneaks a plain American-style sandwich in to work every so often, I suppose it all balances out in the end.
Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine
3761 Bloomington Ave. S., Mpls.