The regal-sounding King’s Roti Palace was only a lunch counter, but the rotis were some of the best in the city. Trinidad style, they married a lusty curry of potatoes and chickpeas to a generous ladle of conch, goat, shrimp, or, on Fridays, duck. It was a substantial meal for less than $5, and if you asked for spicy, they’d squirt a homemade habañero sauce that beguiled with its scent and then scorched like a bucket of hot tar.
I was bummed to see King’s deposed a few months ago, but after an amazing renovation that turned three tables into 12 and made a dour ’50s interior into a breezy cabana, it reopened as Island Grill. The new theme is Jamaican, yet the cafe has wisely retained many of its Trini dishes, even improving on some. Poullouri ($3.50), for example, have swelled in size and are now made to order and served hot. Dipped in a funky shrimp sauce, these fritters of chickpea flour laced with herbs were the high point of a recent meal. Another persistent choice is chicken pellau ($7.50), a simple dish that reveals its complex origins by tasting like Spanish rice and Middle Eastern pilaf at the same time. Dotted with chicken and pigeon peas, it comes alive when you spoon on the fresh mango hot sauce. And on weekends you can get doubles ($3.50), a sandwich of miniature flatbreads called barahs crammed with creamy garbanzos—a favorite street food in Port of Spain.
The usual Jamaican mainstays have been grafted onto the menu: braised oxtails, jerk chicken, escovitch fish, curried goat, and brown stew chicken. The pungent and bony goat was fab, as were the oxtails cooked with lima beans in a darkling gravy, but the jerk chicken was tired and without pep. Paradoxically, the jerk shrimp was excellent. Island Grill’s version of saltfish and ackee ($12.50)—dried cod scrambled with a strange fruit that cooks up like Egg Beaters—was OK, but the serving was meager. To compensate you’ll be offered a free side of breadfruit, a South Pacific staple introduced into Jamaica by Captain Bligh in 1779. The Bounty’s hold was filled with it when Marlon Brando launched his mutiny, and now we know why: it tastes like a wad of cotton moistened with Nutrasweet.
Reflecting the dietary preferences of Hindus and Rastas alike, many vegetarian dishes are available. Standouts include callaloo, the leathery foliage of the cassava plant, and pumpkin—not the jack-o’-lantern variety, but a Caribbean calabaza stewed to a concentrated sweetness and righteously accented with curry and garlic. A combo plate of vegetables ($9) makes a stunning meal, but the glory of the menu remains the roti. Resembling a big burrito, each is wrapped in a whole wheat flatbread with crumbled yellow split peas between its layers. This splendid “dahl poor” hitched a ride with the indentured cane cutters who journeyed from Calcutta in 1848. It was a nutritious meal in itself and probably all the immigrants had to eat. At Island Grill, the goat roti is my all-out favorite, but pumpkin comes a close second. The cafe also melds Trini and Jamaican by offering rotis stuffed with jerk chicken or ackee and saltfish.
Wash everything down with the excellent homemade ginger beer, pleasantly chunky and acidic enough to take the enamel off your teeth, and marvel that Trinidadian food survives in Tribeca, one more gift from its daytime laborers to its permanent residents.