It Takes a 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?
"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.
Aside from the bland vegetable version of the patties, the options for vegetarians are pretty well limited to side dishes, including bland, but tasty, red beans and rice; salty yellow rice made with sazon, a popular style of pre-mixed seasoning powder whose ingredients include achiote seed and coriander; Caribbean-style cabbage sautéed with peppers and onions; and the excellent deep-fried plantains, which can also be ordered à la carte for $1.85. Instead of real plantains, they are often made with just regular bananas, which is fine by me: I think caramelized bananas are the bee's knees.
For a sweet treat, I'd definitely choose those plantains over sugary desserts like the big slab of carrot cake ($2) or the dense, eggy bread pudding ($2.49). I like them best dabbed with a little of the house-made hot-pepper sauce, which you can get in a squirt bottle near the cash register. Take your plantains to a table by the front window and contemplate the skyline panorama--unforgettable both for the long view afforded by the I-94 canyon and for the way the cityscape is framed by the Target across the street. In just the right kind of light, downtown looks like a bunch of architectural flowers sprouting from the store's brown concrete fields.
A landscape defined by a highway and Target? Maybe Sharon Richards-Noel was right in more ways than she knew when she told me: "I just want to keep stressing to people: It's safe, it's safe. Don't get scared of north Minneapolis. It's just like any other place."
MOVE OVER, PRONTO PUPS: A few years ago I "worked" the opening morning of the State Fair, a young food critic daring to tread where no one else would. Checklist in hand, I ordered a vegetarian taco from a stand. A fresh-faced worker handed me a squishy beige gizmo filled with a few oily coils of onion. I asked where the vegetables were, so she repossessed the taco, pushed her grubby finger in there, and dug around in the onions till she found a scrap of green pepper, which she dutifully pulled out to show me. So my head exploded, and senior staff had to throw four-dollar lemonades on it to extinguish the fires. What was that place called? I can't remember. Tacos-Kiss-My-Butt? Tacos-We-Hate-You? Something like that. Well, the days of Tacos-Bite-Me are gone. Tejas has arrived at the State Fair.
Yes, Tejas. The pioneer of sophisticated Southwestern cuisine will boldly enter the land of the mini-donut, serving grilled-chicken wild-rice burritos with mango habañero sauce, no less. Mango habañero sauce! And vegetarian breakfast burritos with roasted red peppers. And steak fajitas, grilled on a real hickory-wood-fire grill! Look for all these wonders--plus churros--on the north side of the old Beer Garden (now cleverly renamed the Garden) on the southeast corner of Dan Patch and Underwood avenues (across from the Information building). I talked to Tejas founder Mark Haugen as he put together his bit of corndogus eternus; he said Tejas has been trying to get into the fair for the last five years, but the spot they finally landed was worth the wait, given that it features one of the Great Get-Together's few beer licenses. Tejas will be pouring Summit Pale Ale, Grain Belt Premium, and Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss, among others.
Other 3.2s that is. All the alcohol at the State Fair is 3.2, meaning that it has between half and two-thirds as much alcohol as the ordinary versions of the brews. Why is it that Tejas always seems to be wrestling with some weird alcohol restriction? The Edina restaurant just threw off its no-tequila shackles a few months ago and is now serving tasty, fresh-juice-laden tequila margaritas. Let's hope all the slings and arrows work out in good karma for the joint: Haugen also says that if all goes well we'll get a Tejas back in downtown Minneapolis where one belongs.
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