Fifth Time's The Charm
2653 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
If you, like so many Americans, spent the last decade chained to the waste stack in the basement, ordering assault weapons online, wrapping Siamese cats in gauze, reading the Guardian website, and home-schooling your youth to follow in your footsteps, you won't care about the following. But:
Harry Singh is back!
Harry Singh, the Trinidad native who brought Trini home cooking to Minnesota back when anything that came without a side of mashed potatoes was called ethnic food, that man is back. Harry Singh, the tireless soul who has had four, count 'em, four, previous Caribbean restaurants in Minneapolis (in Nordeast, Lyn-Lake, Powderhorn, and Uptown), has reopened yet again. This time he's on "Eat Street," on Nicollet, just off 27th Street, in a cheerful, sunny space decorated with a mural that charmingly runs together the Minneapolis night skyline and Minnesota sun-drenched countryside, complete with bunnies. Harry Singh, the man who has been the standard-bearer for chili power in our time, Harry Singh cooks again!
If you, like me, are one of those lone weirdos committed to the radical gesture of leaving the house, and that house is in the Twin Cities, you probably already know that Harry is back. You don't need me to tell you. This is simply the kind of information that flows outside of the regular news channels--just as no one needs to tell you that the lilacs are in bloom, or that it has snowed. You just feel a subtle shift in the force, and intuitively know: The hot sauce is here.
You might have opened your eyes in the morning and considered the fact that Trinidad is an island in the Caribbean that the British filled up with slaves and indentured servants from Africa, China, Portugal, and India, which resulted in a cuisine that is a little of all those places, expressed through Caribbean fruit and fish. You might have thought about the way that Harry Singh has been feeding that particular rendition of spice to Minneapolis ever since--why, ever since 1983, when most Americans were applying the stickers from their brother's Rubik's cube to their My Little Ponys and wondering why he's called Boy George, and whether he had seen Valley Girl.
If you have been feeling this force tug at you, but have been too distracted by recent events to understand what it meant, consider this your engraved invitation, for the roti have returned!
Roti, of course, are what Harry Singh is most famous for, and more specifically roti dhalpourie, which is what you get when you take a roti and fill it with a curry stew. These roti are miraculous things, they are flatbreads as big around as a large pizza but as thin as two crepes, as tender as a pancake, and filled from stem to stern with a special hand-ground blend of lentillike peas and toasty spices. Harry makes each of these by hand, to order, on a big heavy iron griddle he brought here from Trinidad. If you're very lucky, and it's slow, and you ask nicely, he might even show you how he takes his roti dough, makes a ball of it, inserts a wad of pea-and-spice mixture, and, like a magician, rolls this egg of dough into a carpet of dinner.
There are about a dozen curries to have inside your roti: The potato-chickpea one is full of toasty cardamom seeds and has a biscuity, savory, warm, mustard-tinged loveliness to it. Carb-haters be damned, a few bites into this sturdy, well-textured, homey construct you feel as if you've just bundled a quilt around yourself; it is as soothing as a lullaby. The plain vegetable roti is full of crisp cabbage, resilient pigeon peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, tomatoes, chunks of carrots, and much more. The curry beef is deep and resonant, full of well-mellowed meat; it's rib-sticking and good. (Budget diners please note: Most roti cost $7.95 and are almost as big as a football; they are dinner for two days. Vegetarian and vegan diners: There is plenty of food for you here.)
Have your roti along with one of Harry's homemade Caribbean drinks ($2.50), and you will be living the good, simple life, island-style. These nonalcoholic punches are uniformly fun. The mauby is unforgettable; it's basically a Caribbean version of sarsparilla, all sweet, licoricelike, perkily spicy, and palate-cleansing. The soursop is good too; it's made from a sweet, tart fruit and tastes like lemonade, but a little more funky and tropical. Then there's the mango, which tastes like the fruit in question, and is a kids' favorite, as well as homemade ginger beer, a spicy, uncarbonated, sweet, and tummy-soothing concoction that Harry recommends you buy by the gallon at Carnival to take home and blend with rum. Which I fully intend to do.
Harry basically specializes in Caribbean comfort foods: roasty, long-cooked comfort foods that, Caribbean though they be, bear a family resemblance to any Midwestern grandma's best pot roast, because of their all-day-on-the-stove essence. Seriously, whether it's the deeply caramelized, stewed chicken, the tender carrots and cabbage clinging to the okra and chicken in the mellow ladles of callaloo, or the memorably tender and gamy lamb curry, each of these Caribbean home-cooking treats has that essential mild, mellow, old-flannel sort of calmness to them.
Which is why Harry gives you hot sauce. And if you choose the hot, and not the mild, don't say I didn't warn you. "I use Congo peppers, straight from Trinidad," Harry will tell you. "They are like a ball of fire. Peppers in Trinidad are different from those you get here, completely. You can taste the difference; they are hotter and more encouraging. All peppers are hot, that's their common denominator, but these give you a burning sensation in your ears, your nose, and your throat. Oh, it burns! That's what makes them so delicious." Personally, I recommend sampling Harry's really hot hot sauce by the tweezer-full, though the mild can be eaten by the thimble.
Is it really that hot? I suppose it depends on just how tough you are. When I was in college, a popular pastime among my more macho friends was to offer to pick up the table's check if anyone could down an entire ounce of Harry's hot sauce. Please know, the one kid who pulled off this feat still brags about it, and it was so impressive we still let him. If you long to play this game with friends in other cities, you'll be happy to know that Harry recently bought up the contents of three Trinidad pepper fields, and he is traveling to Trinidad at the end of November so that he can oversee the bottling of his top-secret-recipe hot sauce. Tentative slogan? "Oh God, it's hot!"
Of course, the irony is that Harry became famous for hot sauce in the land of lefse back when this really was a lot closer to actually being the land of lefse. I think that that is one of the things I enjoy most about Harry Singh, aside from his food. For 20-odd years now he has been a prominent, ever-eccentric, ever-stable, ever-nice guy, welcoming all comers into his world, cooking his brilliant Caribbean home cooking for anyone willing to venture out of the comfort zone they were born into. And in this moment in time, when so many people seem to treat their homes--and worse, their minds--as fortresses that must admit nothing, ever, it seems we need Harry Singh more than ever.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.