Ragin' Bajan

Caribbean Mouth-watering Cuisine, a Formica-intensive storefront, is a wonderful place with a horrible name, the sort of restaurant you always like to believe exists on a Caribbean island as you lie in a $400-a-night canopy bed trying hard not to think about the leaden mass of fancy-hotel sauteed grouper that is inching its way through your gut. Sometimes, if you ask an island cab driver right, he'll tell you about the real stuff, sometimes cooked by a local woman who serves dinner to tourists on Tuesday nights, more often served in informal dives.

Mouth-watering Cuisine may be the first restaurant in Los Angeles to serve the authentic food of Barbados, not the swank buffet thing, the 2-a.m. Baxter's-Road-after-the-dance thing. Even if you've never been to Barbados, you can imagine the scene this food was made for, air thick with music pounding from half a dozen sound systems and practically solid with smells of wood smoke, frying fish and garlic. This isn't the kind of food you expect in a mini-mall behind a pancake restaurant five minutes from LAX.

"Dearie, we put a bit of garlic in just about everythin'," says the waitress, "but the rest of it is up to us."

The menu here is theoretically vast, including curry goat, oxtail, chicken and dumplings and something called chicken Bathsheba. But as you might expect in, say, that Barbadian ("Bajan") fried fish shack, you basically eat what the chef has prepared that day.

Sometimes, that's just Bajan chicken curry, which is a good enough chicken curry--turmeric-yellow with a buzzing pepper edge--but may not be appreciably different from dozens of other chicken curries you may have eaten in your life. Sometimes it's something called "stew food," which includes sweet potatoes, manioc, a couple of different kinds of meat and vegetables, cooked into a mass that in theory sounds a little like the penal meatloaf the Arizona Department of Corrections once prescribed for unruly prisoners . . . though, with its dose of garlic and a small handful of chopped Scotch bonnet peppers, it's probably good enough to persuade a fellow to escape from a chain gang.

Appetizers are mostly patties, big, flaky turnovers filled with chopped greens or, better, with a hearty, spicy mass of minced beef--a little like what a Cornish miner might bring down the shaft with him for lunch, if miners were reasonably conversant with the decidedly flammable qualities of a bottle of Barbados-made Country Home chile sauce. Macaroni and cheese comes with pretty much every entree, along with fried plantains, stewed cabbage and a big pile of rice steamed with a big handful of black eyed peas and a healthy shot of allspice.

Drinks include sorrel, a tart red hibiscus infusion that is identical to the Mexican jamaica; a spicy pine apple-ginger mix and a superior version of mauby, a tonic made from a native bark, which tastes basically like a wonderful cream soda but has a bitter, medicinal afterkick a little like certain Chinese melons.

Beef stew at a Caribbean-style restaurant is usually a bad call, a throwback to bland colonial tastes, but the stew here is extravagantly spicy, well-browned and flavored with black pepper, chiles, nutmeg and anise, similar in intensity to a Jamaican jerk dish but more subtle.

Black pudding involves a cleaned pig's intestine stuffed with a sweet-potato mixture, a little like a spiced yam banger but with a decided smack of chitlins few sausages seem to have. Souse is a pickled pig's trotter, neatly hacked into convenient serving pieces, big gelatinous hunks of skin and such and tiny nuggets of sweet meat, the kind of food that cries out for the kind of icy beer the restaurant doesn't have. Black puddin' and souse is soul food with an island accent, soul food that can grow on you.

"Black puddin' and souse?" says the waitress. "That's the real Bajan food, dearie, the food we all crave. When I get back to Barbados myself, the first thin' I do is eat me fill of it."

But don't go without trying the flying fish, imported from Barbados, brushed with spices and fried crisp, two or three of the little filets to an order. Flying fish may be a little hard to eat, being as they look so cute whizzing along on Jacques Cousteau specials and all, but the filets have something of the richness and firmness of prime Atlantic bluefish, without the overwhelmingly strong taste.

When they run out of flying fish--usually, one suspects, when the owners are temporarily unable to find an uncle eager to fly up with a suitcase containing 50 pounds of fish--the chef will cook snapper or croaker in the manner of the flying fish, but their comparatively blander flesh just isn't the same.

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WHERE TO GO

Caribbean Mouth-watering Cuisine, 6511 1/2 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 417-9798. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16-$22.

WHAT TO GET

Beef patties; flying fish; black puddin' and souse.

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