Elsie is standing behind the counter of LC's Roti Shop, explaining that when the neon signage outside was first erected twenty years ago, "they charged by the letter, so I shortened my name to LC." The little storefront shanty has hardly changed a whit since it still has more personality than seats although along the way LC's has garnered a large base of loyal locals, attracted a fair number of fans from afar, and collected a couple of Miami New Times Best Caribbean Restaurant nods.
As the moniker implies, rotis rule the roost. Puffy white pillows of dough, made from ground yellow split peas (dahl flour), are slapped onto a floured board and rolled out per order. Next they get brushed with butter, lightly griddled on a flat top, and bundled burrito-style around your choice of curry beef, goat, chicken, conch, shrimp, duck, potato, or vegetables. Actually, before they roll the roti, either Elsie or one of the workers will ask how spicy you want it and then lash the interior with a requisite amount of cantaloupe-color hot sauce made on the premises "from Scotch bonnets, habañeros, and chilies from all over the West Indies." I took a bite of the vegetable roti, heftily crammed with potatoes and garbanzos, and yowza! if you request it hot, be sure to have a cold Red Stripe beer on hand to help vanquish the fire (fresh sugar-cane juice works too). The roti was, in fact, delectable, but just the same I went milder with the chicken version, which came with a bit of potato filler but was mostly packed with hacked hunks of curry poultry still on the bone. Chew with care.
Nonroti items include buss-up shut, broken pieces of griddled roti mixed with choice of curry fillings; and pholourie, which Elsie described as fritters made from yellow split peas and then handed me a plate to try with homemade mango-chili chutney. These golf-ball-size spheres were so darn delectable I'll never again be quite as content eating zeppole at Italian street fairs. Everything at LC's Roti Shop is appealing especially the smart and sassy Elsie, who displays a degree of pride in her food that one would have to travel who-knows-how-far to find.
Cliff's Restaurant, 10740 NW 7th Ave, North Miami; 305-754-2679. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Wednesday 9:00 a.m. to midnight, Thursday through Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.
LCs Roti Shop, 19505 NW 2nd Ave, North Miami; 305-651-8924. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
The Patty Place, 19547 NW 2nd Ave, North Miami; 305-652-1787. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Closed Sunday.
I know how far: a few storefronts to the left of LC's, in the same strip mall. That's where the Patty Place for the past seven years has been serving "the real Jamaican taste." The bright, clean, minimally attired take-out space is managed by Michael "Moppy" Daily and his crew of friendly faces behind the counter. Fresh, soft, pumpkin-hue patties are slenderly laced with beef, chicken, or vegetable filling ($1.10 to $1.50), all possessing a similarly spicy and slightly sweet flavor hopped up with garlic. Plantain tarts, "loaves" of ackee (a creamy, white-flesh fruit), callaloo (greens from the taro root), and corned beef are also sold here, along with some other Jamaican favorites. Still, I enjoyed the homemade desserts more than anything else, specifically a moist, dense, not-too-sugary banana bread and a slice of bright pink strawberry cake frosted white. The latter was generously offered to us on the house.
Eighty-eight blocks south on U.S. 441 is Cliff's Restaurant (though at this point NW Second Avenue has morphed into NW Seventh Avenue), a cluttered roadside room with some tables scattered about, a couple of silently screening TV sets, and a counter with stools in front and hand-printed signs behind it touting assorted breakfast, lunch, and dinner specials. Cliff's seems left over from another era, and so do the prices. For $5.50 you can get a lunch of jerk chicken, curry shrimp, stew peas, pork chops, cow foot, or any number of West Indian specialties served with red-bean-studded rice, steamed cabbage, fried plantains, and fruit punch or lemonade. If you know of a better deal in town, please clue me in.
Other bargains include six pieces of crunchy fried chicken with French fries for $3.99; grilled T-bone steak with salad and fries for $13.95; and a breakfast special of yam, banana dumpling, and callaloo for $5.50. Of course these deals wouldn't be nearly as impressive if the food weren't so lip-smacking tasty. Worth the trip alone is curry goat, with soft morsels of dark meat adrift in an emerald green sauce whose ginger-mustard-masala mix kicks up a storm of flavor.
On the side of the restaurant is a black barbecue smoker piled with chicken, ribs, and pork, the searing of which sends aromatic clouds of smoke wafting over 441. No special pedigree of wood chips here just plain charcoal briquettes but whether slathered with barbecue sauce or jumped with jerk seasonings, the meats are absolutely imbued with full, slow-smoked flavor. A barbecue ribs sandwich translated to a plate of ribs bathed in sweet, tomato-based sauce, accompanied on the side by slices of densely textured Jamaican white bread. Chopped segments of chicken on the bone were glazed in a better barbecue sauce, which means the same barbecue sauce piquantly peppered with Scotch bonnet chili. I'm a sucker for the jerked chicken and pork as well, both invigoratingly spicy in a reasonable way. Bottles of devilish Jamaican hot sauce are on hand for those inclined to defy reason.
The beer list is curiously priced: Coors is $1.95, Budweiser and Bud Light are $1.99. (I can only assume the extra four cents is for the brown tinting on the bottle.) Imports such as Red Stripe, Beck's, Heineken, and Guinness Stout are $2.50 and so is Miller High Life, which I know claims to be "the champagne of bottled beer," but still.
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Cliff, who is from Jamaica, has been running his restaurant since 1986. He and his congenial staff have also been providing catering services for weddings and all sorts of occasions during this time, and come weekend evenings they throw a pretty good party of their own replete with giant speakers gushing island music and revelers spilling out into an adjoining lot.
A few lots farther down, just across 107th Street, sits the ultimate uni-function space: a wooden concession shack painted sky blue, with the word conch brushed across the top in white. Inside the booth stands the entrepreneur and chef, a cordial man of Bahamian heritage named Darrell. He opened the stand this past August and serves but two items: conch fritters and conch salad.
I've consumed a fair share of fritters over the years, but these are genuinely unique. For $2 you get a golden brown patty that looks like a sizable potato pancake, possessing a crystalline crust and a wet, white, fluffy interior reminiscent, strangely, of Belgian waffle batter. It didn't pack much of a conch punch, but this is a fantastic fritter nonetheless. The salad wasn't exactly brimming with conch either, but the pieces within were tenderly soaked in a lime-laden mix of diced onions, green peppers, and a small amount of chili peppers served in a white Styrofoam cup that might otherwise hold a medium coffee ($3).
What these indie Indies ventures have in common besides good, inexpensive food; convivial spirit; and a proximity to U.S. 441 are owners with a strong personal connection to the product and community they are serving. These eateries are not investment opportunities for rich folks who lack proper hobbies, but rather the means for hard-working people to offer the food they love, to their neighbors, at an honest price, in order to make a living. As long as such places succeed, they make Miami-Dade better for all of us.