For almost three decades, the Persad family ran a Trinidadian catering outfit in Rochester, New York, serving the food they knew best. Then, earlier this year, they decided they'd had enough of the cold and relocated their business to South Beach to open the first of its kind on the falafel-and-pizza-laden island.
"There was demand for it from everyone we know," says 19-year-old Tarek Persad, whose parents Terry and Maureen own Choka's Caribbean Restaurant & Lounge (710 Washington Ave., 305-432-7477). "This is the food we eat all the time, it's home-cooked, and we would only open something like this on Miami Beach."
They do it in a pocket-size storefront with only a handful of black tables set with a flower and a burnt-orange bottle of house-made hot sauce. One wall is covered with wood board lined with images of beach scenes and the word "roti" spelled out in large black letters.
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If you're not familiar with Trinidadian food, it's high time you took a crash course. The island's cuisine is among the Caribbean's most vibrant and counts influences from China, India, Africa, and indigenous peoples. Culantro, which Trinis call shado beni, is central to any worthy pantry and appears in most dishes. So too is curry, and its pungent aroma often wafts off fragrant stews and other creations. At Choka's, the speciality is the roti: a kind of Trinidadian burrito of a chickpea-flour flatbread filled with all manner of curried, savory fillings.
For years, L.C. Roti Shop in Miami Gardens has been the standard bearer, filling unbelievably tender rotis with everything from duck to conch and shrimp. At Choka's, the special is the lobster roti ($31.99), which was unavailable when I stopped in a recent weekday. Instead, I opted for the beef roti ($16.99). It didn't come with quite enough cubes of tender beef to warrant the high price, though there were ample potato and chickpeas for filler. The seasoning was also a bit more tepid than expected and required a good dose of Terry's homemade vinegary pepper sauce to bring the heat up to the right temperature. The roti itself fared better, though it could have used fewer moments on the griddle to help prevent it from drying out a touch.
At the moment, none of the other common Trinidadian standbys — the fried spiced dough balls called pholourie or the chicken turnovers called doubles — are on the menu, but they may be added as soon as the kitchen finds its footing, Persad says. Let's hope it does soon. Haitian standby Tap Tap has been South Beach's only decent Caribbean restaurant for far too long.