Caribe Caribbean Bistro serves delicious doubles
There may be no greater vegetarian sandwich in the world than doubles—the famous street food of Trinidad and Tobago, made with two slices of quick bread and chickpea curry. A doubles is sometimes served open-face, other times curled like a taco, and, occasionally, with the edges of the bread pinched together to form a pocket. They are cheap, flavorful, filling, and defiant of typical singular-plural agreement. However the sandwich may look, two things are always true: One order consists of two pieces of bread, and there are not nearly enough doubles in the Twin Cities.
That's mostly because there aren't very many Caribbean restaurants around, which is partly what prompted Puerto Rico native Tony Panelli and his wife, Heidi, to open Caribe (pronounced ca-REE-bay) in the former home of Jay's Cafe in St. Paul. Tony Panelli lived in Puerto Rico as a child and moved to the United States in the early 1980s. As an adult, he cooked in various Minnesota restaurants, all the while making note of what he might do or not do when he opened his own place.
Working and reworking a doubles recipe was not a part of Panelli's lengthy planning process. In fact, the idea of serving doubles was suggested to him only recently by a Trinidadian customer. "I had never tasted them until I started making them here," he admits.
He must be a quick study, because the results are terrific. The bread, or bara, is golden with turmeric and tastes like a cross between fry bread, roti, and naan. It has a thin crust, due to a quick dip in the deep fryer, and it chews like the pillowy wrap of a Chinese pork bun. The chickpeas, or channa, are tender without being mushy, their interiors as creamy as custard. A doubles comes with jerk chutney that's sweet with chunks of mango, banana, and golden raisin, warmed with a little allspice. To counterbalance, there's also a side of scotch bonnet hot sauce, with a light, searing heat like that of an intense tropical sun. Panelli's doubles, shaped like a stuffed pita and cut in half, will set you back $7, but is easily two or three times as large as the ones that sell on street corners for a buck or two.
While the longtime local Caribbean eateries Marla's and Harry Singh's tend to focus on traditional cuisine from the West Indies (including delicious doubles), Panelli wanted to draw from the broader region, include more of the islands' Spanish and Latin influences, and create new fusion dishes.
Many of the appetizers are classics, such as empanadas and tostones, the fried plantain chips that, in this case, are decorated with brushstrokes of avocado on top. The lunch list is mostly sandwiches, including a grilled Cuban and barbecue pork served on sweet Puerto Rican sobau bread. (The latter comes off a touch oversweet, between the bread and the mango-papaya barbecue sauce.)
For dinner, plump shrimp come slicked with a rum-molasses glaze, and tattooed with black grill char. They're served with curry-citrus rice and sautéed spinach that add interest without distracting from the shrimp. Also good: plantain-crusted grouper, topped with a bright tomato/olive/caper sauce and plated with thin strips of taro root and yucca. The Puerto Rican Casserole layers the Midwestern one-pot mainstays of ground beef and green beans with sliced plantains and corn relish, but it's not, in fact, a Minn-Rican fusion dish. In Puerto Rico it's known as piñon, and it's a Panelli family favorite, often prepared by Tony's mom. Apparently it's also one of the bistro's best sellers, but I found it awfully bland—in need of salt at the very least. Maybe I was just missing the cream of mushroom soup traditional to the local variety?
I washed it down with a Caribbean soda—countries with scorching-hot temperatures always seem to have more intriguing carbonated beverages—from Caribe's lengthy list. They stock several kid-oriented Cubby Sodas (in blueberry, banana, and bubble gum, among others), as well as sodas geared more toward an adult palate, such as the refreshing, coconut-flavored Coco Rico; the tart, fizzy grapefruit Ting; and one drink flavored with sorrel, which lends it a clove-like taste. When you get to dessert, you'll probably want to switch to coffee to cut through the sweetness of a simple flan or tres leches cake. One afternoon I lucked into a slice of lovely, house-made cheesecake, as light as it was lush, with just a whisper of crust and a slather of thick mango puree.
Caribe's teeny-tiny space—maximum seating capacity is 44, a fire marshal's sign informs—looks cheerier than it did as Jay's Cafe, or before that, Chet's Taverna. (The bathroom is still proportioned for elves.) The facade is bright orange with a yellow awning and lime-green door. Heidi Panelli, who is an artist and illustrator, covered one interior wall with a beach scene of surf, sun, and seashells with a few coconuts and fish thrown in for good measure.
There are three umbrella-topped tables on the sidewalk, and if you can snag one, you'll have a pleasant spot to enjoy an island-style breakfast. The sweet-potato pancakes aren't native to the Caribbean, but they demonstrate one of Panelli's penchants for working tropical ingredients into familiar dishes. The pancakes, which are made with grated, thread-like, starchy orange strands, originated as a failed dessert attempt but became a breakfast food inspired by a Puerto Rican fritter commonly made with pumpkin flesh. The pancakes are baked and then fried to order, and when I sampled them, they came out a touch raw and heavy with oil but were still rather tasty.
But the best breakfast may be the Caribe Eggs Benedict, which builds on the classic dish that was a menu favorite when the Panellis took over Jay's. Panelli gave the dish a Caribbean touch: His version pairs poached eggs with chewy, cumin-studded roti, chana (from the doubles), spinach, tomato, sweet potato, and a creamy hollandaise with Spanish Creole seasoning. The traditional preparation seems a little dull by comparison.
Caribe is the most exciting Caribbean restaurant Minnesota has seen in years (a plate of jerk chicken on mashed potatoes out in Brooklyn Center confirmed the truth of that statement). And I think it's interesting that many of the details that make Caribe successful were drawn not necessarily from Panelli's island upbringing but from his experiences working at a broad range of Twin Cities restaurants. Panelli learned to make his cheesecake at the former Bellanotte (another former employer, the Cheesecake Factory, doesn't make theirs in-house); he was inspired to source the Caribbean drinks by the unique soda collection at Pop; he picked up several artful plating techniques at A Rebours. Who knew that all these things would create a great Caribbean restaurant?
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