“RUM,” promises the blazing-red neon sign announcing Chicha Cafetín and Cocktail, a splashy new Nicaraguan-inclined party hangar that opened in May near the Jefferson L stop. The letters cast a glow onto this quiet stretch of Randolph Street that recalls pre-revolution Havana or the best of Art Deco Miami. Thankfully, it’s no mere ornament. The bustling Bushwick warehouse restaurant offers around a hundred different expressions of sugarcane-based spirits doled out in tasting-friendly one- or two-ounce pours, from grassy Brazilian cachaças to El Dorado’s smooth, earthy Guyanese Demerara rums to cult bottles like Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum, an extra-aged black rum from Bermuda that’s nearly as syrupy and darkly sweet as the molasses it’s fermented from.
One you might not have tried before is clairin, Haiti’s minimally processed, typically unaged rhum agricole made from sugarcane syrup or freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Only recently arrived stateside, it is to Big Rum what artisanal mescal is to mass-market tequila: a small-batch kindred spirit steeped in centuries of tradition and terroir marked by distinct characteristics that vary from producer to producer, and sometimes from batch to batch. Of the three available, I was bowled over by the full-bodied Clairin Vaval, which is fermented with wild yeasts and distilled in a custom rig built from, among other things, car parts. The intensely sharp clear liquor, so pungent it tickles your nose with an herbal astringency and peppery snap after each sip, is indeed a wild ride.
Another, the barely milder Clairin Sajous, makes its way into one of partner and bar director Marshall Altier’s overtly Instagrammable $14 craft cocktails called the Blufields Swizzle. Stained a purplish ombre thanks to the addition of butterfly pea flowers, the tropical, fruity sipper mixes in banana liqueur and coconut cream, plus three other strong white rums (from Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Oaxaca), for a drink that looks and tastes like a trippy piña colada. Altier rounds out his beverage list with $13 cocktails on tap (the Nitro Cafecito, which mingles rum, cacao, cherry liqueur, and cold brew coffee, is particularly invigorating), Nicaraguan craft beer, zippy pitaya limeade, and sodas infused with both fruit and spice and made in-house. Whether it’s while posted up at the stunning, soaring bar with locals wearing vibe-appropriate florals and pastels that match the colorful design, sitting beneath a Nicaraguan wood backsplash next to a dozen rowdy off-duty high school teachers, or perched at the front countertop that looks out onto a nondescript beige brick building across the street, imbibing here is blissfully rewarding.
So is much of the cooking from co-owner Vanessa Palazio, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, whose familial ties and travels through the country inform a modern Nica menu full of rarely seen dishes that embraces the vibrancy of the restaurant’s decor and drinks program. In her hands, the Latin-American staple of chicken cooked with rice becomes arroz con pollo arancini ($12), a trio of Arborio rice croquettes laced with olives, peppers, and shreds of tender slow-cooked bird that speaks to the virtues of frying everything. Salpicon, a meat hash, takes a provocative turn as jarred short rib rillettes ($18) under layers of pepper jelly and smoked coconut. Somehow both refreshing and deeply beefy, it is spread onto giant, craggy chips made from puffed rice and beans, a nod to gallo pinto, the country’s version of the iconic Latin combo. Elotitos ($11) riff on the cheesy, peppery fondue of baby corn called guiso de chilotes. Repackaged as a handheld snack, the stack of tiny grilled cobs showered with grated queso seco are delightful when dipped into auburn-hued smoked guajillo chile sauce.
Then there are her quesillos ($4.50–$7.50), the open-faced, corn tortilla-bound street food loaded with melty hand-pulled cheese that’s somewhere between a taco and a sope in thickness. Before opening Chicha together, Palazio and her husband, Adam Schneider, ran a DUMBO pop-up specializing in the dish. Here, the rounds have been shrunk down to “bar bite” size. Made from masa milled in-house, all are worth investigating. The simplest highlights the cheese with a ladle of crema and plantain vinegar–pickled onions; the fanciest plunks sweet, well-cooked lobster claw meat onto a dark squid-ink tortilla. Best are the ones with shredded roast chicken and sour orange–cooked baho-style pork shoulder, which pack an al pastor–like wallop of flavor.
Palazio also compellingly cradles pork shoulder with plantains and crispy rice in banana leaves for a large-format entrée of baho ($24) served with more tortillas, and sears skirt steak ($27) to an admirable medium-rare that’s perfect with jalapeño salsa and a nest of crispy taro root shoestring fries. Also ideal for sharing is whole roasted sea bream ($28), the flaky fish perked up by tomatillo-corn relish and a bright, acerbic vinaigrette tinted orange with achiote.
End your evening modestly with seasonal ice creams and sorbets ($9) — on a recent evening, watermelon was a juicy treat — or in a blaze of glory with maduras infiernos ($13), ice cream scooped into a bowl of crisp, fluffy plantain churros and set next to a puddle of booze-fueled fire. Or do as Chicha’s sign commands and send yourself off with a nip of rum.
198 Randolph Street, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2018