'Tis the season, and on a gray Saturday afternoon Penny's Caribbean Cuisine, like so many other shops, was playing Christmas music. But these weren't tunes about silver bells and roasting chestnuts. Santa leave! The North Pole! And come down to Trinidad, sang Machel Montano, accompanied by sunny, bouncy guitars and steel drums: Soca Santa! Don't want to ride no sleigh. In a big-time Toyota ga-la-vanting all day. Four or five diners, which meant the place was almost packed, sipped ginger beer and waited for their roti to arrive. Heads nodded almost imperceptibly to the infectious music.
Owner Ann Penny may not bed down in her small, cluttered West Berkeley storefront, but she inhabits the place completely, and walking into it is like walking into her living room. Her kids come in after school, sometimes working the cash register and delivering food, sometimes doing homework. The walls are papered in prints, posters, and event notices, the front window framed by dozens of houseplants. Green and red plastic tablecloths cover four tiny tables, which are topped with yellow placemats and vases bursting with bright flowers that range from fresh to moribund.
When she doesn't have a kid to help out, Penny does it all, sometimes passing the time with neighbors and customers in her Trinidadian lilt, occasionally disappearing into the back to give everything a stir. She's there six days a week, preparing lunch and dinner. Penny offers fried chicken and potato salad for the locals, but the pilgrims drive in for her traditional Trinidadian food. Most notably, roti.
If roti sounds like the bread you order with your channa masala, you're close: It's an Indo-Caribbean dish of curried meats and vegetables wrapped in a beach-ball-size crepe, the Trinidadian equivalent of the San Francisco burrito. Roughly 40 percent of the population of Trinidad and Tobago is of Indian descent, folks who emigrated to the two islands as indentured workers from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries. Another 18 percent report their ethnicity as being some mix of African, Asian, and European.
All those influences show up on Penny's menu, which is displayed above the counter, with everything priced below $10. At a buck a handful, her phulori are the cheapest of thrills. The exterior of these ground-split-pea fritters, which look like hush puppies, fries up into a lacy aura, with insides as soft as cake. They're drizzled with a tart mango chutney. So is the alou pie, a fried pie shaped like a banana and stuffed with curried potatoes -- for an extra thrill, dab on drops of Penny's scotch-bonnet pepper sauce. Somewhere between appetizer and dessert is the mango bread, a dark, sweet fruit-studded cake.
Rotis are to eat with your hands -- but not like a burrito, as I discovered the first time I bit into one of the thick packets and discovered the meat inside was still attached to the bones. Perhaps as a warning, Penny serves her roti open faced, the crepe spilling far over the edges of the plate. In the center she spoons a thick dollop of potatoes, carrots, and chickpeas cooked in a turmeric-gold curry. Then she heaps on whatever meat you order -- curried chicken, jerk chicken, shrimp, or the best, curried goat, stewed tender, if a little fatty, with a more aromatic blend of spices that heightens the meat's richness. As you tear apart the soft, thin flatbread to begin picking up the meat and vegetables with it, a powdery yellow substance spills out: ground yellow peas that Penny rolls into the center of the roti. The two layers of spicing in the meat and vegetables reverberate, flavor on flavor on flavor. It's palate-overload, make-you-sweat food. And it's awfully hard to stop eating.
Penny's isn't the only roti place in the East Bay, but it's the easiest to find. Ma's Caribbean Cuisine at Telegraph Ave. and 19th Street is still there, but has shrunk to a stove and a couple of stools, and now serves Nigerian food, too. Six months ago I popped in for one of Sylvia's Specials, jerk chicken wings over curried potatoes, and it was as good as I remembered. But I've driven by four times in the past two weeks, and it's never been open.
Daniel's Caribbean Kitchen, a trailer just big enough to hold two cooks, has been a longtime Ashby Flea Market fixture, but also has been appearing on the corner of Seventh and Potter streets in Berkeley for lunch Wednesdays through Fridays (sporadically, it seems, during the rainy season). Like Penny, he rolls ground-up yellow peas into his rotis -- chicken, shrimp, or vegetarian -- and his tortilla-like flatbread is less likely to fall apart when you unwrap the packet and use it to scoop out its center. Made with boneless meats, his rotis are much easier to eat in a parking lot, but the mild yellow curries don't have quite the force of Ma's or Penny's, nor are they as memorable.
Several of the meats in Penny's roti can also be ordered as dinner plates complete with plantains fried so long that their sugars transmute into pure caramel, plus a choice of rice dishes such as pelau -- an overly bland, saucy orange rice mixed with frozen vegetables -- or the more fragrant coconut and spinach rice. The jerk chicken is cooked long enough that you have to worry it apart with your teeth, but it tastes as if she's been able to rub the dark marinade into its very bones. One of her soups will fill you up until the day after tomorrow. I ordered a bowl of the beef soup, and it looked as if Penny had thrown a little of everything in the kitchen in -- stew beef, maybe a piece or two of chicken, frozen carrots and lima beans, curry and chile powders, and soft dumplings. It was phenomenal. This is home cooking, nothing fancy, but nothing false, either.
Besides the standard sodas, try the plastic bottles of drinks Penny makes in-house: Her ginger beer is fiercely sweet and fiery, just the thing to scare off the winter cold lurking in your lungs. The mauby, made from the bark of a tree, is much harder to love, though she masks some of its pointed bitterness with cinnamon and sugar. Her sorrel, a crimson-colored potion distilled from hibiscus flowers, offsets the sugar with a resounding tanginess.
On my first trip to Penny's I brought along a Trinidad-born friend to eat roti with me. He gave the food, except the pelau, the nod. My friend was disappointed, however, that the restaurant was out of both the "shark and bake" (a fried-bread sandwich stuffed with spicy shark meat) and crab and callaloo (a stew of callaloo, or taro greens), Trinidad's national dish. Penny says the ingredients are expensive enough that she generally makes the two dishes only when you call ahead. Crab and callaloo with a side of macaroni pie -- now that, my friend says, would make a proper Sunday dinner.
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