Sand shark looks like swordfish when cooked, but it tastes closer to white-fleshed fish, milder and sweeter than its weapon-billed nautical neighbor. Battered and fried, the predator makes for one of Trinidad’s most adored snacks, stuffed into airy fried bread called bake and stacked with toppings like pickles, sauces, fresh vegetables, and, occasionally, pineapple. At Trini Gyul in Jamaica, Queens, the prehistoric beast comes dressed demurely with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mayonnaise — a subdued combination, but one that’s easily enhanced with liberal dousings of tamarind sauce and a condiment called green seasoning, a sauce made from culantro, a relative of cilantro both in genetics and flavor. Jaws Jr. also takes a soak in the stuff before hitting the fryer.
The shark tamer is Ro Ramcharan. For five years she trekked from Valley Stream in Nassau County to cook West Indian specialties at the modest cafeteria she’d opened with her husband and her sister on a bustling stretch of Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Over that period the zip code became hotter than a verse spat by its most famous resident, the Notorious B.I.G., and when her lease ran out last year, Ramcharan (the eponymous Trinidadian girl) regretfully closed up shop. Of her clientele — devout residents, curious New York City gourmands, and out-of-state travelers seeking tropical creature comforts — she sighs, “They were like family to me.”
She has decamped to the southern edge of Richmond Hill, home to a bustling West Indian community with a large Guyanese diaspora. In her new surroundings, she has had to adjust her menu and cooking schedule accordingly. “I can’t make enough doubles,” she says, equally proud and exasperated at having tripled her output of the breakfast favorite, a sandwich of fried bread and channa, or curried chickpeas. Sounding defeated, she admits she had to take on an assistant for the a.m. shift. Good luck snagging one past lunchtime. Every vendor puts his or her own spin on the specialty; shops and stands in Trinidad and Tobago are as common as slice joints in New York. Ramcharan’s mango and mint chutneys seal the deal, cooling and tart against a chunky chickpea stew that sings with herbal notes of culantro and Cuban oregano. Fried buns here are tinted a sunset hue from turmeric and lighter than most, thin but able to hold up nicely to a dip in the vegetable gravy.
The channa hints at Trinidadian cuisine’s multitude of cultural influences, woven with spices and ingredients from India, West Africa, and China. In Brooklyn, Ramcharan’s steam table dominated the room, emitting an invisible cloud of intermingling aromas. Here the trays hold court at the back of the shop, where the staff doles out West Indian produce like plantains, earthy stewed callaloo greens to go with hearty portions of chow mein, curried duck and shrimp, and jerk chicken ruddy with spice and relentless slow-burning heat. Pelau, a hearty rice dish made with shredded chicken and
pigeon peas cooked down with coconut milk and piquant seasonings, possesses enough mystique to hush a group of excitable bros.
The steam-table selections brim with long-simmered flavors. Ramcharan’s bar snacks are made to order after 9 p.m., while a bouncer guards the door. Get past the muscle and you’ll be treated to a menu full of VIP drinking foods, including plenty of fried things like shrimp wontons, jerk chicken wings, and fried bangamary (a variety of weakfish). Evening is also when you’ll find some of Ramcharan’s boldest flavors, practically screaming off plates piled with stewed tripe and gizzards and chicken stir-fried with cumin or cooked until glistening and dark from a glaze of cassareep — a type of peppery molasses made by reducing bitter-cassava juice from its raw (and poisonous) state.
The chef claims her crab and dumplings — cracked and cleaned blue crabs submerged in curry and perched on spongy, oblong dough rafts — haven’t yet caught on in Queens. I can’t imagine that will last very long, because for all her anxiety about changing boroughs, the new
location — a spartan but lively space
that’s more than twice the size of the original — seems quite popular with its new neighbors. Crowds gather around the comma-shape bar to cheer on their favorite cricket and soccer teams, and a schedule of the games takes up an entire bulletin board next to the TV. They drink American beers for the most part, though house red and white wines are also available.
At the owner’s whim, the sounds of sporting events make an abrupt switch to feverish calypso and soca rhythms, and if you’re lucky the music might be live. Visited by some old Brooklyn customers, Ramcharan emerged from the kitchen one night dancing to the beat, only to be joined moments later by several patrons — starting an honest-to-god lime (a Trinidadian expression for a party) in the middle of the dining room. Making my way over to the sweets case, home to spongy coconut sugar cakes and sticky, sour tamarind balls, I had no choice but to raise the roof in celebration.