Over the course of an hour, two other groups -- large families -- walk in, and it turns out they all know each other. Hugs and kisses ensue before each group makes its way to the kitchen to greet the staff and Corine Baez, the restaurant owner. "Chicken and viandes?" she calls moments later to a 20-something man in a white tank top who sidles up and sits at the counter. "Yup," he says with a knowing smile.
When Le Lambí opened several months ago, there was little fanfare, advertising, or mention in the press. Rather, Baez relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth marketing throughout Kendall's small but tight-knit Haitian community to fill tables at the comfy, laid-back eatery tucked nearly out of sight of busy N. Kendall Drive. That it's the area's only Haitian restaurant is one factor of its success. But another is that the aromatic, generous platters emerging from the minuscule kitchen are traditional home-style meals that cut no corners and use authentic, often imported ingredients.
The menu is simple -- just six entrées, divided into half seafood and half meat, a handful of sides, and another handful of appetizers, mostly fritters of various types. The signature item is lambí ($12), as you might guess from the name of the restaurant. The slowly stewed conch in a tomato-based sauce dotted with peppers, onions, and spices is criminally tender and spicy enough to render lips numb for a good ten minutes. Those with less tolerance for Caribbean hot peppers can opt for poulet en sauce ($7): chicken drumsticks, with meat that falls off the bone, in a similar but milder creole sauce.
Each entrée is served with two sides, and an additional one costs $2. Riz et pois -- rice and peas -- gets its speckled black-and-white color not from black beans but djon-djon, a mushroom native to northern parts of Haiti that lends the dish a nutty complexity.
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In Haiti, Friday is generally an off-day for cooks, so it's a day to indulge in street food. Here the kitchen is open every day but Sunday, yet the tradition is still observed with large plates ($3 to $6) of fried plantains, malanga, goat, pork chunks, and sweet potato. These are greasy-plate, deliciously guilty indulgences served alongside a peppery dipping sauce that makes tears stream from our eyes, and a less spicy but even more gratifying pikliz. Baez's version of the vinegary sauce typically comprising pickled cabbage, carrots, onions, and habanero peppers is made better with the addition of sour orange and lemon. It's become so popular that she is thinking of bottling it for sale.
Le Lambí's quirky, homey ambiance, in which some patrons are so comfortable they go behind the counter to serve their own glasses of water, makes it easier to accept sometimes island-paced service. Baez is often the only one working the counter, serving tables, and helping in the kitchen. Her schoolteacher husband and two sons usually arrive to help in the afternoon. One son is frequently "stressed out" when the place gets packed, Baez says, so he picks up a guitar from the corner to play music that calms him and entertains guests.
Really, it's hard to be mad at a server when he's strumming slow folk tunes in your direction, and everyone around you is willing to help the owner as though they are personally invested in the restaurant's success. The savory, lush platters of comfort food help too.