Two local caribbean restaurants face off to see who will claim the title of Food Fight! Champion
Caribbean Heat in the Desert
When it gets cold in New Mexico, our minds and palates often look to warmer climes. Like New Mexico chile, the spices of the Caribbean help to handle the heat of summer, and a taste of heat is just what we need to relieve the cold of a high sierra winter.
In Albuquerque, we have two great choices for Caribbean fare: Talking Drums and A Taste of the Caribbean.
But which is better?
Talking Drums offers the flavor of the Caribbean as well as African dishes. Located just west of University Boulevard on Central Avenue in the old Souper Salad space, this restaurant has its roots far away from Albuquerque.
The space itself is welcoming, with brightly painted walls and African art. Hanging from the ceiling are national flags from all over Africa and beyond.
Our visit was at lunchtime on a weekday. Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) construction was an obstacle, but it was well worth the effort to get to Talking Drums.
The staff was friendly and helpful. There were few patrons when we arrived, and our server told us business had taken a nosedive since construction began.
We ordered, then enjoyed the African music played at a low level from the many speakers in the dining area. The menu offered several Caribbean and African dishes, but since this is a comparison of Carib food, we chose jerk chicken and chicken curry.
The food came quickly, but would have been worth a long, long wait. The jerk chicken had the deep and complex flavor it should. Marinated in sweet, savory and spicy herbs and spices, the chicken was cooked just so and did not lose any moistness. Rather than the thick paste that coats most jerk dishes, the chicken was flavored through, likely from long marinating.
The curried chicken was tender and flavorful. I love a good East Asian curry, but this really made me smile. African and Caribbean food are somewhat of a blind spot in my culinary knowledge, so I came away with a greater appreciation of the cuisine.
Both entrées came with white rice (nothing exciting, but cooked just right) and green beans that might have come from the freezer. Sides be damned. The chicken dishes were amazing.
A Taste of the Caribbean lies maybe a mile to the east, right across from UNM’s Johnson Field. The location is quaint and classier than one would guess from its location in a strip mall.
Our server told us business was extremely slow, owing to construction and the break between college semesters.
We ordered and quickly received an order of fried plantains. These relatives of the banana are only edible if cooked. The big chunks worried me at first, but they were cooked through and delicious. Sweet and savory, they just needed a sprinkle of salt.
We did not expect the massive portions when our entrées arrived. The jerk chicken was two full leg quarters along with rice and beans and braised cabbage and carrots. I asked for hot sauce and received it – along with a raised eyebrow. I put a few drops on the veg, but the jerk chicken was plenty spicy for me, a dedicated hot food fan.
The jerk chicken was, to be honest, a bit dry. I feel it is only fair to cut some slack on this one though; we arrived fairly late on a Tuesday evening, so the chicken had probably been slowly cooking for quite a while. Also, with business as slow as it is for all restaurants along the ART construction area, restaurants must continuously bet their profit margins on how much food to cook. Will there be enough? How much will go to waste?
So, yes, it was a bit dry. It was, however, an amazing example of jerk chicken. The thick paste of chilies (typically Scotch Bonnet), thyme and allspice was complex and delicious. After long, low-temperature cooking, the rub turned dark brown as the sugars caramelized and flavors married. It was far closer to my idealized Jamaican food.
The curried chicken was also on point. Bright sauce, deeply colored with turmeric, coated three (!) drumsticks mixed in with onions and potatoes.
The potatoes were past the ideal tenderness, but again, this is a slow-cooked food held through the full-service time.
In addition to Carib food, A Taste of the Caribbean has Third Coast favorites such as Cajun and Creole dishes and a catfish po’boy.
How to choose a victor in this Food Fight? Fairness dictates that I revisit A Taste of the Caribbean at lunchtime. Deadlines and my work schedule preclude this. I have to call it a qualified draw: Go to A Taste of the Caribbean for their super inexpensive lunch deals one day, and then to Talking Drums for dinner later that week.
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