“Is it Jamaica, or Richmond Hill,” Zio asked frantically over the phone while cruising up and down Liberty Avenue looking for Gerry’s pick, Singh’s Roti Shop.
“Richmond Hill,” I said.
“Jamaica or Richmond Hill?” Zio asked again, his hearing aid obviously not functioning up to speed.
“Richmond Hill,” I repeated.
“Okay, I’ll be there soon,” he said.
I was in front of Singh’s when Zio called, after haven taken a brief walk around, peering in at the nearby Guyanese and Caribbean restaurants, the Brown Betty,” and Sybil’s Bakery, where there was a line waiting for Sybil’s offerings. Whatever it was they were waiting for smelled delicious.
There was a small line at the brightly lit Singh’s as well, and Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were already in the bar area to the left. Gerry with a plastic cup filled with vodka and Mike from Yonkers with a bottle of Carib beer. Eugene was once again a scratch; his expertise as a timekeeper for a high school basketball game the priority on this particular night.
While I sipped my own Carib, I wandered over to the steam table and tried to get a look at the many dishes that were available. I had my camera and began to take a few pictures. This brought the attention of a man behind the counter who seemed to be in charge of Singh’s intricate operations.
“Take a picture of him,” the man said, pointing to an Asian man who was carrying what looked like a stir fry lo mein-like dish. “He’s the chef.”
I obliged and snapped the chef’s picture who posed without affectation.
Mr. Singh, the man in charge, then asked what we wanted. Despite the long line to order, he had one of the female servers “take care of us.” Maybe it was the camera. Maybe it was because we were obviously not from the neighborhood. Whatever the reason, Mr. Singh was giving us V.I.P treatment including a sampling of some of the offerings.
The sampling included pepper chicken; a fried, breaded chicken reminiscent of sweet and sour chicken, but with a spice kick that took that Chinese/American classic to a higher level. There was also stewed pork with vegetables, and something else, Chinese-like, with green peppers and onions, we could not identify.
Singh’s served Caribbean Chinese food along with, what I thought was Guyanese, but after being chastised by Singh, told were Trinidadian specialties.
The Roti, an Indian bread stuffed with whatever you wanted; goat, beef, chicken, potato, was, of course, Singh’s specialty as was something called doubles; kind of a roti sandwich, a layer of roti bread lathered with chick peas and various condiments, and then topped with another flat roti, making a “double.”
While we were devouring the sample platter, Rick called to say he was at Sandy’s Roti Shop, also on Liberty Avenue, but in South Richmond Hill.
“It’s Singh’s, Roti Shop,” I said to him.“Not Sandy’s?”
“Not Sandy’s,” I replied.
“I’ll be right there,” he said. And then I realized I heard those same words from Zio quite awhile ago. And he still wasn’t here.
“Where are you?” I asked over the phone.
“I’m embarrassed to say I got lost,” he murmured sheepishly.
I gave him the address again and told him what Singh’s looked like.
“I’ll be right there,” he sighed.
And within minutes both Zio and Rick arrived. The line had grown while we were waiting for them, and Mike from Yonkers was anxious to get going—fearing Singh’s food supply might run out. Though from what I could see, that was a very slight possibility.
My new friend Singh again summoned one of his workers to put together our platters. I had no idea what was in most of the trays and when I asked, the female server impatiently blurted out what they were as if, in the bustle of the place, I could hear and register what she was telling me from the other side of the counter. So I ended up just pointing to things, more of that Chinese pepper chicken, a few orders of “doubles,” some of the mixed fried rice and the rice and peas, a container of dark green mashed callaloo, and stewed pork.
We plowed through the food effortlessly. All of it, despite the cafeteria-style, seemed fresh and flavorful, in particular, the unique “doubles,” which, at $1 each, a hefty bargain and enough to fortify even our gluttonous appetites. This Trinidadian street snack was no light appetizer and one remained on our table throughout the rest of our dinner; untouched and tightly wrapped in wax paper.
Despite the mounds of food, Rick was not quite fully satisfied. “I think we should try a few more things,” he said.
No one disagreed.
I went with him to the West Indian/Indian side of the counter where there were curries displayed along with more exotic dishes like conch (spelled “counch” on the menu) goat, and, something we couldn’t identify our server said was “goat belly.”
If goat belly was anything like pork belly, we had to try it.
Rick brought the second round of platters to the table. The stewed goat curry was tender, the meat easily coming off the bone. The conch could have used a couple more hours boiling, but maybe “al dente” is the preferred Trinidadian way. The goat belly, however, upon closer inspection, was a challenge, even for us.
Zio got close to it and sniffed.
“It’s smells like an old bicycle seat,” he said, and then bravely took a forkful.
“It’s trippa!,” he exclaimed.
The goat belly was indeed, tripe. Gerry sampled some. He shook his head. Mike from Yonkers, tried to chew a piece. “Un uh,” he muttered as he forced it down.
Thankfully, Rick had ordered a few pieces of roti bread to help us quash the foul taste of the goat belly.
We were done…almost.There were a few brightly-colored sweets I was interested in including one that was purple.
“Sugar cake,” was what our server barked out when I asked her what it was.
I brought a small sweets’ sampler back to our table; one of the sugar cakes and a bun. Gerry peered at the bun that was speckled with raisins and other candied fruits. “It looks dry,” he said.
He broke off a piece and chewed. He nodded. “It is dry.”
The desserts pretty much went untouched. We were done. The line at Singh’s was much shorter now. The damage to our wallets was light and our own belly’s full. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that. Except for Zio, who, before we walked out the door, grabbed the one untouched, still wrapped, “double,” and shoved it into his pocket.
I looked at him.“What?” He said. “It’ll taste even better tomorrow.”
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.