Photo courtesy of Arthur Bovino
I fell in love with Doubles in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where I was served what one native Trinidadian I met on our Doubles Quest theorized must have been “a left-handed Doubles,” one on which a spell had been cast. Spellbound or just inspired by an intense hankering I set out with my Trinidadian Doubles-partner, Terrence Grannum, on a mission across three boroughs to find the city’s best—a quest that required eating more than 20 doubles from 18 vendors. Our trip exposed rivalries, revealed inter-borough nuances, tested hype and ultimately resulted in a champion: New York’s true King of Doubles. Hold on tight, folks—this ain’t no roti crawl.
Fortunately for anyone craving Doubles, New York has a considerable population of people from Trinidad and Tobago. According to the American Community Survey of 2005-2007 from the U.S. Census, there are about 75,000 Trinidadians living in the boroughs, with more than 45,000 in Brooklyn (specifically Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights) and more than 20,000 in Queens. It was in these neighborhoods where we found the most Doubles vendors.
A little about what we learned and how we judged: there were several hyped fan-favorites— purported epicenters of New York’s Doubles universe. Brooklyn’s most ballyhooed were: A&A, Ali’s Trinidad Roti House, and Bake & Things. In Queens, Singh’s (now known as Sonny’s) and the mythical-sounding “Doubles Man” of Liberty Avenue were the most heralded.
The perfect Doubles should have the following characteristics:
Several of the 18 restaurants ended up being tied for their place on the list below, 1-12. We don’t recommend eating Doubles from the last third of the list, especially for your first time. For your convenience, we’ve mapped out all 18 locations should you wish to pick up our Doubles trail. Worst to best, without further delay…
11) J&D Image Restaurant 825 Flatbush Ave., Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)826-2280, (daily, 8am-8pm). J&D’s name makes you think they sell cameras—from the taste of their Doubles ($1.25), they should switch businesses. The bara was eggy. Eggy! Doubles aren’t made with eggs! We stopped after two bites. It’s worth noting, J&D’s Doubles come with chicken, beef or goat ($3.00), and with shrimp ($3.50). The worst thing about the tender, spicy goat was its association with the Doubles. D
10) Uptown Juice Bar 54 West 125th St., Harlem; (212)987-2660, (daily, 8am-10pm). Narrow, crowded takeout joint purports to be vegetarian but smelled of fish. Inauthentic Doubles ($2.00) served sandwich-style on flaky, Jamaican-beef-patty-yellow bara leaves powdery residue on your fingers. Celery-studded channa lacked any sweet nuance. Hot sauce was the only accompaniment. They tend to run out by 1pm. Edible. C-
9) Trinidad Golden Place Restaurant 788 Nostrand Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn; (718)735-7065, (Mon-Sat, 10am-9pm). Yes, it’s, ‘Place,’ not ‘Palace.’ The Golden Place is packed and has a friendly staff, but Doubles ($1.50) aren’t their priority—Trini-Chinese food is. Indian flavors were more pronounced—channa tasted strongly of cumin and curry powder. Chickpeas were big and there was a decent bite but the bara was a dirty-looking brownish-gray. You may die of starvation before your Doubles arrive. C
8) Nio’s Trinidad Roti House 2702 Church Ave., Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)287-9848, (Mon-Sat, 11am-8pm; Sun, 10am-8pm). Several people forewarned us about Nio’s: “Those Doubles will make you shit.” This dirty-looking corner eatery has a fun food graffiti mural outside and serves compact, sandwich-style Doubles ($1.00) with tamarind and hot pepper sauce along with cucumber chutney. The bara were dingy and without any crispness. Nio’s makes New York’s spiciest Doubles—this is pepper that jumps out and says, “hot!” Points for the live DJ spinning music. C+
7) Annie’s Roti Shop 127-07 Rockaway Blvd., Jamaica, Queens; (718)323-7101, (daily, 6:30am-9:30pm). We found the interaction between customers, chickens and executioner at K&B Live Poultry nearby much more interesting than Annie’s Doubles ($1.25). The flat, peppery bara was wrinkled with holes and the channa was uninspired. At least they had kuchela, tamarind and hot sauce. B-/C+
7) Anil’s Roti Shop & Bakery 125-01 Liberty Ave., Jamaica, Queens; (718)845-2800, (Sun-Thurs, 6am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6am-11pm). Corner roti shop calmly serves tepid, Indian-tasting Doubles ($1.00) at this Liberty Ave., outpost. The bara was flat but pillowy, the channa was sweet and tasted of Indian dahl and there was a decent spiciness but these Doubles were tired and tough to get to. B-/C+
6) A&A Bake and Doubles 481 Nostrand Ave., Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; (718)230-0753, (daily, 6:30am-3pm). There’s a line outside but A&A is also barely larger than an Amtrak bathroom. Still, it’s one of the easiest places to reliably find Doubles into the mid-afternoon and you can even pay in T&T Dollars. Channa was decent— sweetened by mango chutney and spiced by hot pepper sauce. But the bara tasted inexcusably doughy. A&A’s Doubles are passable, especially washed down with a Caribbean favorite, Solo Apple J Soda, but they don’t reign supreme, no matter what their sign claims (“The Doubles King”). If you really want to cause some trouble, ask whoever is working behind the counter what “A & A” stands for. The folks at “D” Original A + A (The Doubles Man) contend that there was an agreement to change the name of the store when they sold it to the current owners several years ago and that they never told them what the initials stand for—the first names of the owners’ children (we know the names but have been sworn to secrecy). B-
6) Gloria’s #1 987 Nostrand Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn; (718)778-4852, (Sun-Thur, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-10:30pm). A 2009 Carnival video loops on a flatscreen and a picture of Gloria (who passed away several years ago) watches over the front kitchen of this, the first of her three restaurants. In terms of gruff attitude and the ridiculously hot channa, it’s the most authentic experience—these Doubles ($2.00) are so hot that once unwrapped you have to eat either eat them or drop them. Taste was inferior to Gloria’s other locations. B-
5) Melanie’s 3322 Church Ave., Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)693-0604, (Sun-Thur, 7am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 7am-11pm) and 1285 Fulton Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant; (718)399-2960. Specializes in pricey fresh juices and Caribbean food. Sandwich-style Doubles ($1.25) were lukewarm, served with tamarind and pepper sauces. Apple chutney was a very pleasant touch. The spiciness creeps up on you at the end. We were pleasantly surprised. B
5) “D” Original A+A, The Doubles Man 120-09 Liberty Ave., Jamaica, Queens; (718)659-7400, (Tues-Sun, 8am-8pm) and 1433 Nostrand Ave., Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)462-7400. The décor in this spotless restaurant was pleasant and featured an aquarium and modern lighting fixtures. ‘D’ Original serves New York’s thinnest bara—almost crepe-like. Our initial impression was that the nutty dough contained sautéed onions but The Doubles Man folks insisted this wasn’t the case. While perfectly decent, they weren’t mythmakers. B
5) Justin’s Island Cuisine 144 Lawrence St., Downtown Brooklyn; (718)625-9190, (Mon-Sun, 7am-9pm). This Guyanese/Trinidadian canteen, steps down from the street, runs out of Doubles ($1.50) by 1pm but its polourie (think, Trinidadian zeppole, $2/13pieces) are worthwhile. Doubles are served sandwich-style with hot pepper and tamarind sauce. Channa was spicy and featured thyme instead of shado beni. Bara were a bit pillowy but maintained structure. B
5) Gloria’s #III 764 Nostrand Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn; (718)773-3476, (daily, 9am-10pm). Gloria’s #III, does everything right philosophically. Bara have tiny specks of red pepper mixed in, channa has the proper herbage, and thinly sliced cucumber chutney impressively dress the Doubles ($2.00). This, and the spice lingering on your tongue should put it ahead of other comers, but the thin bara smelled floury and as Terrence noted, while the bara had nuance it was as if they were compensating for sub-par channa flavor, “the taste was all inside out.” They sell a mean Gingerbeer ($3.50)—very sweet and pungent but not fizzy. Another T&T staple beverage not to be missed here is a pear soda, called Peardrax. B
4) Chuck’s Place 88-06 Liberty Ave., Ozone Park, Queens; (718)848-8806, (Mon-Sat, 6am-9pm). Steps away from the A train’s 88 St.-Boyd Station, Chuck’s serves very fresh tasting Doubles ($1.25). Best dingy, Indian-style bara in New York. Channa was faintly sweet with a top-lip-tickling spice level. Served with hot pepper and cucumber chutney. Unexpected, authentic Doubles in Ozone Park. B+
4) Sonny’s Roti Shop 118-06 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens; (718)835-7255, (Sun-Thur 6am-10pm; Fri-Sat 6am-11pm). Alternatively Richie’s and Singh’s, this roti shop, now called Sonny’s, must be in the Doubles protection program. “Once in a while you have to change the name of your store for, you know, business reasons,” the owner told us when asked. Whatever the name is when you go, this clean, friendly, well-organized store with the “Doobles” neon window sign, serves very good Doubles ($1.25). Bara were thin but held up to a piping hot channa—the chickpeas, which could have used a touch more salt, were on the smaller side. Lively pepper, cucumber chutney, tamarind, and kuchela accompanied. B+
3) Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop 1267 Fulton St, Crown Heights, Brooklyn; (718) 783-0316, (Mon-Sat, 10am-9pm). They don’t start serving until noon but customers forewent A&A (“The Doubles King”) around the corner to line up at Ali’s and wait. “I haven’t tasted no better doubles,” advised an employee. Within a minute of opening Trinidadian music was playing, there were five people behind us, and the joint was bumping. Bara was soft yet crispy, thick and yellowish. “The hue of the bara is closer to legit,” said Terrence. Certainly more substantial and no doughy taste. No sweet chutney either. The peas in the channa were bigger. A-/B+
2) Gloria’s #II 991 Nostrand Ave, Crown Heights, Brooklyn; (718)493-2183, (Sun-Thur, 11am-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 11-10:30pm). Very clean, tiled, Gloria’s outpost with a picture of Gloria on the wall. Polourie 8/$1.00 are dangerously good—crispy, even when sitting in sauce. Doubles are served with tamarind, pepper, kuchela. Bara so soft and fluffy it sticks to the paper wrapping. Crispness not a factor whatsoever. The channa was skimpy but sweet. They’re proud of their food. A-
When it was finally time to decide who had the best Doubles in New York, we flip-flopped. While Bake & Things does not have any one component which would make our “Dream Doubles combination” (below) their Doubles met all our criteria for the perfect Doubles and were the best overall package. Though Terrence (above, right, collecting bags of Doubles) admitted, “I carry a picture of those Doubles around in my phone,” he could not give them the number one spot on our list, contending that Royal’s Doubles were “mood-changing.”
1) Bake & Things 184 East 35th St., Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)826-1807, (Mon-Sat, 7-10; Sun 9am-10pm but no Doubles). Unless “I do not deny myself anything” Lucy is working behind the counter, it’s all business at this tiny place off the corner—order, pay, and then eat outside. Doubles ($1.50) are accompanied by shado beni, hot pepper, tamarind sauce and kuchela. Bara had perfect golden hue, channa was very soft and the spiciness had a heat built from the ground up. A close second to #1. Arthur’s Grade: A Terrence’s Grade: A/A-
1) Royal Bakery & Roti House 618 Nostrand Ave., Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; (718)604-0200, (Mon-Sat, 8:30am-8pm). There’s nowhere to sit and food literally arrives through a hole in the wall but the soft, spongy bara had a crisp outer layer that made it structurally sound and the lip-tinglingly spicy channa featured large chickpeas and plenty of herbs. As my partner said, “they killed it.” Doubles happiness, $1.00. Arthur’s Grade: A/A- Terrence’s Grade: A
We discovered two schools of Double-making: Brooklyn Doubles are fluffier and more naan-like while Queens’ are thinner and more like roti in color and texture. Brooklyn bara can be categorized by two subdivisions: light golden-colored fluffy bara similar to that found in Trinidad and a dingy, fluffy bara that seemed more influenced by Indian cooking. The former was more authentic and better tasting. We found Brooklyn Doubles to most resemble authentic Doubles from T&T but we did not grade New York’s Doubles against Trinidad’s. As good as New York’s best were, they weren’t expected to measure up to those made by an average Doubles vendor in Port-of-Spain or Arima. We would, however, throw our Dream Doubles Combination into the ring in a blind tasting bout against Trinidad’s best.
Our Dream Doubles combination would consist of: bara from Royal, channa from Ali’s, cucumber chutney from Gloria’s #3, spiciness from Nio’s, temperature from Gloria’s #1. For the best Doubles customer experience we’d love to have these Doubles served the “true Trinis” at either Royal, Golden Place or the Doubles Man.
Below is a map featuring all above-mentioned Doubles locations save Harlem’s, Uptown Juice Bar.
: B Justin’s Island Cuisine, C A&A Bake and Doubles, D Royal Bakery & Roti House, E (behind F) Gloria’s #III, F Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop, G Gloria’s #1, H Gloria’s West Indian Restaurant #2, I J&D Image Restaurant, J Nio’s Trinidad Roti House, K Melanie’s, L Bake & Things, M Chuck’s Place, N Sonny’s Roti Shop, O “D” Original A+A, The Doubles Man, P Anil’s Roti Shop & Bakery, Q Annie’s Roti Shop