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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

Stillwater Runs Deep at Caribe

March 21, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

The chef at Caribe is from the Caribbean, but he didn't learn to cook back in Santo Domingo. It was while Marc Joseph was studying mechanical engineering at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, that he became a pollo con arroz- meister.

Caribbean cooking has never been readily available in Stillwater, and Joseph practically starved to death while living in the Cowboy dorms. So one Christmas he went back home and begged his mom for recipes so he could have the sort of food he liked. Today the man is an accomplished chef.

His restaurant is near the sea, all right--on Peter's Landing in Huntington Beach--but any similarities to the Caribbean end there. This location used to be Cafe Bristol, and the decor is, well, a bit dreary. The walls are high-gloss particle board, and the tables look as if they were made in San Francisco during the '60s: flowered batik mats under glass. The only attempt at atmosphere is a fake palm tree next to the bar.

Occasionally, it sounds like the Caribbean, though. Three nights a week there is live reggae music, sometimes from a well known local band called Judah Star. And on Sunday nights there is a live steel band, if you can take that. We won't quibble about the fact that reggae is Jamaican and the steel band originated in Trinidad: Give Joseph an "A" for effort.

At lunch, there's no effort at Caribbeanism. When I walked in the first time, the sound system was murmuring "Ferry Across the Mersey," by Gerry and the Pacemakers, a far cry from Bob Marley. It doesn't quite put you in the mood for Caribbean food.

Maybe Joseph even intends it that way. At first I was told that Caribbean dishes were only available during the evening, although the waiter gave in when I insisted. Unfortunately, I had to wait almost 45 minutes for my plate of arroz con pollo, a seasoned rice casserole with plump pieces of spicy chicken. The ladies at the next table got their salads and burgers in one-third the time.

But during the evening, Caribe is a different restaurant. On a Thursday night, when there is no live music, I ordered several Caribbean dishes. The waiter instantly put on a steel band recording of "Day-O" and asked whether I wanted him to turn the nearby TV set off.

Things started slowly, with an ordinary salad of iceberg lettuce with some heavily larded croutons and a thick vegetable soup with lots of corn and potato.

Then the real food surfaced. Joseph slow-cooks all his dishes in a big stewpot, then finishes them in open casserole dishes or in the oven. All the Caribbean dishes come with fried plantains (a starchy vegetable related to the banana), rice and red beans, and portions are huge.

His cooking is highly aromatic: lots of clove, red pepper, minced onion and other things he would not divulge. It should probably be mentioned that Joseph is French Creole, not Spanish Creole, and his food reflects his background. Unlike Spanish Dominicans and Cubans who use black beans, the French Dominicans serve their dishes with red kidney beans, stewed down to look like Mexican refritos.

My favorite dish here is the Caribbean-style roast pork, a tender, melt-in-the-mouth dish that you can eat practically without chewing. Next on the list would be Caribe beef, soft brisket tasting heavily of clove, with a piquant onion topping. Chicken Creole is served in pieces in a tomato-based gravy, a perfect complement for the fluffy rice. And there are other Caribbean style dishes, too, among them fall-off-the-bone back ribs and occasional specials.

Should you choose not to order any of the Caribbean-style dishes here--a mistake, in my opinion--there are plenty of other options. Joseph has several dishes that would look more at home on the menu in Stillwater, such as potato skins, steak and lobster or oven-baked fish. He does an interesting shrimp en brochette , but such things are clearly not his forte. If they're what you want, you can find a dozen places on Coast Highway for them.

I wouldn't bother about dessert here, either. Joseph plans to add flan to the menu, but at present all that is available is some store-bought cakes, chocolate torte and plain cheesecake. I tried the chocolate cake, and it tasted so stale I had to send it back. But it made me kind of nostalgic, at the same time. It tasted like something I ate while living in a dormitory, somewhere.

Caribe is inexpensive to moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95 to $5.95. Caribbean specialties are $7.95 to $10.95. American specialties are $7.95 to $22.50.

* CARIBE

* 16400 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Harbor.

* (714) 846-0588.

* Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Dinner: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Brunch: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.

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