It Takes a Villager

The Villager
featuring West Indies Soul Restaurant & Catering

818 W. Broadway Ave. N., Mpls.; (612) 521-7229
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Cash only

After six years serving up succulent jerk chicken at corporate picnics, dishing out Jamaican patties and red beans and rice at street fairs and festivals, after six years of catering, literally, to those who like a little island sizzle in their snacks, the five Caribbean chefs who own West Indies Soul have scads of loyal customers, devoted clients who book them years in advance, their hearts and calendars set on sweet plantains and rich, thick stewed oxtail.

But now comes the moment of truth. How loyal are these acolytes really? Are they devoted enough to cross I-94 into the--cue Hitchcock violins, eek! eek! eek!--north side? The Forbidden Zone? The place where only chain fast food and Lucille's Kitchen dare to tread? Will West Indies' fans find the freeway exit at Broadway and hazard the journey a few hundred yards west, threading their way past such alien institutions as a Wendy's, a Target, and--gasp--a gas station?

David Kern

"The majority of our catering people are white corporate people, and they keep telling me they're scared to come in here," says Sharon Richards-Noel, a Trinidad native and one of West Indies Soul's owners. "People are scared when they hear 'north Minneapolis.' One customer who knows us said: 'I talked to my husband, he used to be the mayor of someplace-or-other. He says you're doing it all wrong, no one will come here.' But I tell everybody: 'I'm from St. Paul, even I was scared when I heard "north Minneapolis." But I came here and found the atmosphere is real nice. I came and I'm happy.'"

Richards-Noel talks about north Minneapolis's reputation not with exasperation but with the air of someone who knows she's at the beginning of a long, long journey. See, Richards-Noel and her partners had looked at plenty of suburban locations--including in the Har Mar Mall and the Rosedale shopping center--before deciding to join forces with north Minneapolis development agency Step Up Inc. to create a bit of community soul. The restaurant itself is called the Villager, says Richards-Noel, because "we want to build up the community, to show how it is like a village, with all the people and culture of a village. That's why we're the Villager featuring West Indies Soul. We are trying to do something to help this community."

How much help is curried chicken? Well, it helped me quite a bit, providing the sort of aid that only good stewed poultry can. After a bunch of visits to this former Dairy Queen, I've settled on the curried chicken--a savory yellow mélange whose tangy, spicy sauce nicely marries the meat to the accompanying potatoes, carrots, and onions--as my pick to click. It is available on its own with a choice of rice and vegetable from the steam trays ($6.50); piled into a house-made roti--that round, rolled quick bread stuffed with chopped yellow peas and cooked on a griddle ($5.85); or on the sample plate, which gets you a choice of three meats along with rice, a veggie, and a dinner roll for $8.75.

The other knockout on the menu is the jerk chicken, a spice-rubbed, grilled version of the dish, terrifically moist without being gloppy. Jerk chicken is available by the piece ($1.25 each); as a dinner ($6.50); or, again, on the combination plate. A word to the wise, though--on my first visit to West Indies Soul there were only a few chicken wings left in the steam tray, and I regretted trying them. If you don't see big, plump pieces of thigh and breast waiting for you, skip it.

This bottom-of-the-tray syndrome is easily the biggest problem with the Villager: They seem to stop cooking sometime in the afternoon, and any time I ate there in the last hour or two of operation I felt like I was getting leftovers. I'll also forever skip the stewed red snapper ($7.50) and the kingfish steaks in a bell-pepper sauté: I can't stand fish that has spent time on a steam table, since the flesh just gets denser and fishier the longer it stays hot at that low temperature.

To experience West Indies Soul at its best, try getting there before about 6:00 p.m. That's when the curried goat ($8.95) is rich and gamey, and the stewed chicken ($6.50) is smooth and silky in its cloak of bean-thickened sauce. (Early Saturday sees the restaurant at its most hopping, and it's the only day you can have sweet fried dumplings with your meal.) One weekday lunchtime there was even a great special of barbecued ribs dressed with a molasses-dark sauce: They were delicious, especially when complemented by a Caribbean soft drink (my pick is Ting, the zesty grapefruit soda ($1.50), but spicy Jamaican ginger beer ($2) is another good bet). It was as good a meal as I could have had at any of the downtown rib joints, at half the price.

Regulars seem particularly fond of the menu's biggest bargain, the Jamaican patties ($2.25 each), sandwich-sized flaky pastry shells wrapped around a filling of beef, chicken, or vegetables. I grew up getting Jamaican patties as grade-school cafeteria lunches, so I can't even look at the things without a coffee can full of broken crayons and a really small carton of milk at my side. If I could, I might get them as a "Yard Man Snack" ($2.75), a patty sandwiched between two slices of the sweet, fluffy Coco bread West Indies Soul imports from New York. A Yard Man Snack with cheese is tasty in a sickening, S'mores sort of way--think hot dish, Caribbean-style.

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