Editor’s Note: Caribe is now closed.
Caribe is a jewel of a restaurant, and that’s deliberately chosen metaphor: It has sharply defined facets, and as a home to coherent, earnest, passionate ethnic cooking, it’s precious. Located in a cozy and vibrantly painted space on Raymond Ave. in St. Paul (formerly Jay’s Cafe), Caribe emerged earlier this year already possessed of a rare sense of poise and purpose.
There’s something downright exhilarating about a restaurant that can focus its menu with this degree of precision. There are six dinner entrees at Caribe; six appetizers; one dessert special. All feature classic Caribbean flavors — spice, heat, tropical fruit, the starch of plantains and beans and rice. Each dish is distinct, and with so few choices and so many complementary flavor profiles, it’s impossible to order poorly or out of character.
From a gastronomic perspective, Caribe’s misses weren’t bad and the hits were bullseyes. Doubles are a Trinidadian street food favorite that combine chana masala (spiced chickpeas) with flatbread to make deeply flavored vegetarian soul food sandwiches. The version at Marla’s is great at its best, but lately they’ve come out soggy or — inexplicably — been out of stock. Unfortunately, Caribe’s appetizer version ($7) is no angel of salvation from Marla’s blasted inconsistency; it renders a heavy-on-the-fried-bread version of the dish, lacking enough bite (from something like onion or tomato) to balance the load. An accompanying hot sauce helps, but it doesn’t save the day.
An appetizer of tostones (savory twice-fried plantain slices, served in this case with a schmear of avocado and Puerto Rican mojito garlic sauce — $5) suffer a bit from the same starch overload, but are much smaller than the doubles and have a pleasing crispness to them. The avocado’s also a nice creamy break from the carbs.
Conch fritters can often go wrong, sporting rogue flavor notes or an unpleasant texture. Caribe’s fritters ($9) were spot on, tender and moist, reminiscent of fresh fried clams. An accompanying banana ketchup had an almost apple-pie like flavor profile and was a great match for the fritters, as was the pickapeppa remoulade, which was like a brightly flavored tartar sauce.
Entrees were consistently excellent. Caribe’s Piñon ($14) is billed as a Puerto Rican casserole, but it really reminded us of coffee cake crossed with meatloaf after a relaxing Caribbean vacation. It was a veritable layer cake of green beans, ground beef, plantains, and rich spicy flavor that featured an almost sweeter, cinnamon profile in the lead. It was odd and delicious, and the accompanying white rice and stewed red beans were perfectly prepared and a great complement to this exotic dish.
Both seafood entrees we sampled would be worth ordering again (and again) — grilled jumbo shrimp ($17) were tender and tasty, sporting a sweet smokey molasses-like richness of flavor imparted by the black pepper rum glaze. The plantain-crusted kingfish steak ($17) was big, properly cooked, and balanced with a topping of Puerto Rican mojo isleño (“islander sauce” that typically features olives, peppers, bay leaves, and garlic) and beautifully cooked root vegetables that fought the fish for the limelight.
The jerk chicken ($14) could have been more thoroughly spiced and flavored, but the blackened exterior was rich in carbon and flavor, and everything it’s served with (including a couple sweet and zany fried dough-like dumplings called “festival”) worked well.
Also worth noting: Caribe’s soda selection ($1.25-2.50) is a delight. We dug the intense coconut hit of Coco Rico, the soulful edge of the ginger beer, and the sweet-tea like mellow flavor of the Yerba Mate soda. Like the no-alcohol selection at Cafe Maude (and precious few other local restaurants), Caribe’s soda choices give non-drinkers and designated drivers something to cheer about.
Dessert changes often and there’s only one option. We rolled the dice on a coconut flan ($5) and found it superb — a sweet caramel start to the flavor of the dish, followed by a refreshing milky body and a lingering coconut finish. You know a dessert really worked when you’re fighting over the last bits like a pack of wolves; this dessert really worked.
Beyond dinner, Caribe offers weekend breakfast and daily lunch service which merit further investigation. We’ll be back.
BEST BET: Start with conch fritters and move on to the remarkable Piñon.
791 Raymond Ave
St. Paul, MN 55114
CHEF OWNER / CO-OWNER: Tony and Heidi Panelli
Tue-Thu 11am-2pm 5-9pm
Fri 11am-2pm 5-9:30pm
Sat 8am-2pm 5-9:30pm
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No
ENTREE RANGE: $14-17