A short while ago, the intrepid members of the MTA Dining Car eating club convened once again. This time our mission--to enjoy cheap, bountiful and authentic eats--would not be so easily attained. That's because we decided to venture far, far into the Bronx, taking to our beloved IRT in somewhat diminished numbers and riding almost to the very end of the 6 line. Why suffer through such a long commute? you might ask. The answer is simple: we had been inspired.
You see, for several weeks, my cohort Kiera and I had been eagerly following the hilarious, creative and informative antics of filmmaker Justin Fornal, aka the Baron Ambrosia. A self-described "quaffer of culinary consciousness" whose theme song queries, "he doesn't rest, he only feasts, how will he soothe the savage beast?" the Baron is a veritable ambassador for the culinary riches of the borough of the Bronx that he calls home. In his expertly written, colorful short videos that often include elaborate plots, songs, and dance numbers, the Baron visits restaurants, cafes and takeout spots all over the Bronx that are turning out reasonably priced and reliably delicious food. Just don't look to the Baron to provide any recommendations for white tablecloth fare: the man is all about bringing our attention to inexpensive, come-as-you-are neighborhood spots; the kinds of places that locals revere but outsiders might never otherwise notice.
Watching the Baron's videos, we knew instantly that we had found a culinary compatriot who was championing our same cause. We trusted the Baron implicitly, and for our next eating club outing we wanted to take the Baron up on one of his suggestions. After we viewed the marvelous "Roti Express" episode (hint: it involves a Bollywood-style dance number. Need I say more?), we knew we had our place: the Coconut Palm Bar and Grill, a lively spot that serves up a large variety of Guyanese dishes.
Now hold up a second!--you might be thinking--what exactly is Guyanese food?! Prior to my dining experience at the Coconut Palm, I couldn't have answered you. For most Americans, myself included, any mention of the country calls up a sole image, that of the Jonestown massacre that occurred there in 1978; I had little idea of what present-day Guyana is like, and even less of what it eats. Now I know that Guyana is a melting pot in the truest sense of the word. It has a unique history: located on the northern coast of South America, Guyana has been colonized, over the ages, by no less than 4 superpowers: the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the British. And if there's anything that colonizers like to do, it's bring slaves and indentured servants--loads and loads of 'em--with them to their new home country, so that they, you know, don't really have to worry about things like raising food, cooking, and cleaning. And bring help they did: from India, Africa and China, in particular. As a result, most of the country's modern-day population is comprised of the descendants of that multinational work force. A sizable segment of the population consists, too, of Aboriginal indigenous groups (see Wikipedia).
So what does all this demographic data mean in terms of the food? It means that the mark of all these disparate cultures is left on the cuisine in recognizable ways. Guyanese food is most strikingly similar to Caribbean cuisines; that's because Guyana lies directly south of the Caribbean island chain. Fans of Caribbean food will notice the prevalence of items like rice and beans, jerk chicken, stew chicken, oxtail and goat that the native populations of Guyana have been cooking up for centuries. More recent influences show up as well: those Indian immigrants brought over flatbreads like dhal poori and roti; the Africans carried over traditional ingredients such as sweet potatoes and peanuts; and the Chinese cooked up a variety of Guyanese-inflected Asian dishes such as fried rice, lo mein and chow mein.
All this and more is yours for the sampling at the Coconut Palm. The restaurant offers a vast array of traditional Guyanese dishes, and because the cuisine is so incredibly diverse you will get to experience an incredible variety of tastes and textures. When the Dining Car stopped in a short while ago, the friendly staff at the restaurant truly treated us to some bang for our (twenty) buck(s), starting us off with numerous plates of appetizers and, later on in the evening, setting up our very own personal buffet that positively brimmed with fluffy rices, tender stewed meats and aromatic breads. Oh--and how could I forget?--we had a very special guest in our ranks that evening. Can you guess who it was?
That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the Baron Ambrosia himself showed up, bringing not only his lovely self but also an (intimidating) flask of scorpion wine (yes, with a real scorpion in it) procured in Vietnam:
The Baron also (!!!) provided parting gifts for everyone: DVD copies of last years' holiday special, one for everyone, that he brought in a huge, orange, Santa-style sack. Look for the Baron's 2009 holiday special, airing on Bronxnet and online on New Year's Eve this year:
The Baron was truly a generous, gracious guest and, of course, we have him to thank for discovering the Coconut Palm in the first place. We look forward to many a savory Bronx dining experience based on his recommendations and we want to offer him one final, warm thank you for his attendance! OK, now on to the (delicious, copious) food, starting with the appetizers:
Polourie: small, deep-fried balls of light chickpea batter, these taste like savory doughnut holes. What's not to like?
Potato balls: like balls of soft mashed potatoes, fried. Again--nothin' wrong with that
Fried fish: I don't recall what type of fish these were, but they were tasty
Fried shark. A suggestion of the Baron's, the chunks of fish were soft and flakey with a crisp greaseless exterior. Perfect
Blood sausage, aka blood pudding. Yum. There's that colonial European influence showing up
And now on to the buffet of main dishes. Here you can see Don helping himself to, from left to right, rice and beans; fried rice; curry goat; curry oxtail; and stew chicken:
And, finally, here's a closeup on my (first) plate: starting with the fried rice at 12 o'clock and going clockwise you'll see a piece of dhal poori; stew chicken; curry oxtail; curry goat; and rice and beans:
A huge thanks to the interborough trekkers that make up our membership and to the helpful staff of the Coconut Palm, who provided us with heaps of fragrant, filling food! Interested in attending our next event? Join our mailing list by shooting an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.