Few things take the edge off of a Minnesota February like home cooking from a warm part of the world. Trinidad, with an average temperature range of 73 to 87 degrees, definitely qualifies. Warmth—imparted by profoundly spiced food, and the calypso/house beats of a Trinidadian internet radio station—is the rule at Marla's Caribbean Cuisine, a new south Minneapolis restaurant that is a reincarnation of the (still open) Marla's on Lake Street in Uptown. While Marla's Uptown is an Indian restaurant with some Caribbean touches, the new location has clearer priorities: Caribbean food as interpreted by the multiethnic folk who make Trinidad and Tobago such an interesting place to visit—and dine.
Visitors shouldn't let Marla's no-frills decor or (charmingly) informal service throw them for a loop. For one thing, the doubles ($2) are too good to miss. These tidbits are the island interpretation of the soft bread and curried tomato-chickpea dish known in Indian restaurants as chole puri. Ask them for spicy (ordering the mild incarnation is like eating eggs Benedict without hollandaise sauce) and prepare to marvel, as the soft warmth of the bread cradles and absorbs the chickpea and spicy chutney filling. The damn things practically demand that you gobble them down. "You know how in northeast Minneapolis there's a church and a pub on every corner? That's what the doubles vendors are like in Trinidad," says owner-chef Marla Jadoonanan.
Take a gulp of Ting—a Jamaican soft drink that uses its 6 percent grapefruit-juice content to cut through spice and starch like a dagger dipped in citric acid—and everything is right with the world.
Main courses at Marla's are uniformly interesting and often excellent. Jamaican jerk chicken ($10) is a pleasurable shock; it's as fiery and flavorful as world-class barbecue, each bite a complicated mouthful of carbon and spice. Eaten with brown rice and fat red beans or soft, sweet, slightly salted plantains ($3), it's a perfect cornerstone for an elegantly balanced plate of food.
The crab in the callalloo (okra/coconut milk/spinach stew, $12) is tough to crack, but the Caribbean stew (or "Brown Down," $8 to $15 depending on protein choice) is a more manageable and balanced mix of meat, caramelized sauce, cabbage, and carrots.
If there's any over-arching problem with the menu at Marla's, it's that it ranges so far. It's critical to try the roti (hulking burrito-like wraps composed of split peas, chickpeas, curry, and a filling of your choice, $8 to $11), but then you'll miss out on the Caribbean chow mein ($8 to $12). And you'll want to start with doubles, of course, but that may preclude getting a Jamaican beef patty ($3) or soft, spongy coco bread ($2), which, in addition to being delicious in its own right, is perfect for sopping up spicy sauces.
On a frigid winter evening, those are the sort of problems you want to have.
MARLA'S CARIBBEAN CUISINE, 3761 Bloomington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.724.3088