Marla's Caribbean Cuisine (Minneapolis, MN)

By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
The Mix
September/October 2008

You longtime readers know we like spicy food. We don't need a bowl of habanero squeezins to make us pay attention, but we do like food hot enough to make us notice the endorphin rush.

We have encountered food too spicy, though. Some authentically hot Thai dishes leave us struggling. And we've had jerk chicken we found inedible.

Marla's Caribbean Cuisine
3761 Bloomington Ave. S.
Minneapolis
612-724-3088
www.marlascuisine.com

Cuisine Type: Caribbean
Reservations: Not required
Diet Choices: The menu accommodates all manner of vegetarians.

Marla Jadoonanan, sister to local jerk-chicken legend Harry Singh, has also been in the restaurant game for a long time. These days, she's concentrating her culinary skills on 38th and Bloomington. What with a reggae record shop up the block, this is the most Caribbean corner in Minneapolis.

She's from Trinidad, an island whose culture and people have roots in India, China, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. All of those influences are on the menu at Marla's.

If you want spicy -- and we do mean spicy -- order one of the jerk dishes. Jerk chicken is the standard, but Marla also makes shrimp, fish, and tofu for the non-meat eaters. Flavored with allspice and hot peppers, these have a sweet, hot, smoky intensity. Brown rice and red beans are essential to cut the heat.

If that sounds like too much, order one of the stews called a brown down. It's a delicious balance of caramelized sauce, cabbage and carrots, and there are a lot of meat choices. We loved the beef brown down.

The callalloo is another excellent choice: a stew of okra, spinach, coconut milk, and spices. It's normally made with crab -- more to infuse the stew with crab flavor than to eat -- but you can also order it with shrimp.

The roti wraps are only OK. Think of a huge burrito, filled with a variety of different options: curries, jerk dishes, and so on. Maybe order one of these as a lunch takeout, but you're better off ordering the curries and jerks as dishes instead of in wraps.

We had a similar mixed reaction to the pelau. This is a rice and pigeon-pea mixture stewed with coconut milk and spices, served with chicken, shrimp, beef or vegetables. It was OK, especially if you've got a taste for pigeon peas.

Don't bother with the Caribbean chow mein or the Caribbean-style fried rice. Some things are better in their original versions.

Order the ackee and saltfish only if you already know what they are and already know you like it. Ackee is a Jamaican fruit, not bad by itself, but it's sautéed with some very salty chopped fish. If you grew up eating this, it's probably delicious. But for the rest of us, beware.

For appetizers, try them all. Don't miss the doubles: chickpeas and spicy chutney between two pieces of flat bread. Or the Jamaican beef patties. Or the poulories, spiced and fried balls of chickpea flour served with tamarind sauce. We also liked the hummus, made unique with a hint of curry, and the jerk chicken wings. And the coco bread is great for sopping up sauces.

Nothing at Marla's is expensive. Entrees are just under or over $10, depending on choice of meat, and appetizers are as low as $2. Spend some time pursuing the fascinating array of drink options. You won't be disappointed.

earlier review: Café Maude (Minneapolis, MN)
later review: Abu Nader Grocery and Deli (St. Paul, MN)
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