In most restaurants, slow service is a frowned-upon sign of ineptitude, poor management, staff indifference, or all of the above. Not so at many Caribbean joints. When imparting the pleasure of indolence ranks among a restaurant’s primary functions, the sudden disappearance of a waitress can carry the whiff of extreme authenticity. Perhaps she decided to take a dip in the ocean. Or maybe the riddims of the reggae band beckoned. Whatever. The point is that inefficiency plays a role in the fantasy, and as long as you’ve got a round of fruity drinks to slurp, the pleasures of wherever you were supposed to be 15 minutes ago shouldn’t be any more appealing than those right here.
Here is Caribbean Dream, a newish, island-inspired enclave that has been aiming to transport its clientele without the weather’s cooperation or the use of its upstairs patio, the one on which the late Straits of Malaya performed its own hocus-pocus act for years. The menu throws you into a mind-set before you even get to its contents: A pink-tinged image of the sun setting over a rippleless water body glares from the cover, right above a statement about how the lovingly prepared food will “create a tingle around the lips.”
The single dining room is hardly the tropics incarnate, but it’s warmer than it was before the current owners took over, and its ambience is cagily achieved. If the room were any more softly lit, the staff would have to issue infrared goggles upon entry, yet the yellow walls lend their own dusk-light glow. Sit by one of the windows, above which Christmas lights trickle down from a string of evergreen roping, and you’ll be thankful that you’re not looking through the glass from the other side.
Given most American vacationers’ idealized notions about the places that inspire Caribbean cuisine, the food can seem fairly illogical. It’s neither easygoing nor terribly sunny; even the steamed fish seems to sit heavy in the stomach. There are many things I might consider eating immediately before heading into the surf for a snorkel; fried yucca and goat curry are not among them.
Dream doesn’t exactly discourage stereotypes; on the menu, appetizers are listed as “likkle tings,” entrees as “big tings.” But at its best, the restaurant’s food offers compelling examples of why the cuisine is beloved. Take some of the finer likkle tings: Corn soup—light and brothy, with a single ring of on-the-cob kernels providing the only visual reference to the dish’s name—is a grain salty, but as a simple, homey vehicle for vegetables, it’s hard to fault. Codfish fritters are crisp and fluffy, with a hint of ginger playing off the funk of the fish. Fried plantains come vaguely sweet and mushy—that’s why you ordered them. And the well-crusted jerk wings are fiery enough that you’ll want to make use of their cooling mango-pineapple chutney. The only really disappointing starters are a trio of pale, doughy patties (one vegetable, one beef, one chicken); think empanadas in dire need of finishing school.
Dream’s entrees aren’t artfully adorned; most orders come with a pile of beans and rice and a lettuce salad, sans dressing. But the kitchen’s indifference toward invention doesn’t keep it from exhibiting flair. Chicken is served in sundry guises, none of which offer much visual stimulation. But try to turn down the fricassee in its sweet, tomato-based sauce, or the glossy barbecue chicken, which unfolds in layers, the last of which reveals a jolt of tamarind. The entree jerk chicken differs from the wings only in size and accompaniments, but with jerk this sneaky, size matters.
The kitchen’s less sure-handed when it’s not handling fowl. The oxtail stew is sumptuous in its dark, lima-bean-studded gravy, but the curried goat tastes like curried leather. Dream’s seafood is more expensive than its nonfish entrees, all of which are priced under 10 bucks. The steamed, onion-cloaked red snapper is flaky and fragrant, and the codfish is worth a try if only to taste the way that its stew of Scotch bonnet peppers and ackee, a relatively rare tropical fruit, play on the tongue. The two shrimp dishes are considerably less amusing: Coated in coconut shreds and coconut milk, the shrimp taste too much like dessert, and sauteed with a listless tomato sauce, they taste too much like nothing at all. I quickly forgive the latter dish because it’s followed closely by a slice of Key lime cheesecake. Few things this side of a stiff drink usher sugared fat through the system like a citric shimmer.
None of the offerings are delivered with anything approaching panache, but Dream’s staffers are hardly a befuddled bunch. In fact, they’re quite accommodating, and the people at the door are quick with a menu and an extended arm pointed in the direction of an open table. In this approximation of the tropics, time doesn’t stop, but stretches—usually to about 90 minutes. The only time you’ll ever notice is when you’re supposed to be someplace else 15 minutes ago.
Caribbean Dream, 1836 18th St. NW, (202) 797-4930.
Casa Juanita’s is a decades-old Mexi-Salvadoran joint whose internal clock is stuck right around the day it opened. The years are apparent on the sign outside, which has been in need of refurbishing since at least the early ’90s, and in the better-for-the-wear interior: a colorful, ramshackle room bedecked in cactus. Readers have been writing in about the fish soup for years, the consensus being that Juanita’s is the only place to get it. I’ve personally been more impressed by how the stuff that’s served everywhere else always seems to turn out better when you order it here. Chiles rellenos are a case in point. The meat’s well-seasoned, the sauce is poignant, and the “egg batter”…well, it’s not just batter. It’s more like an omelet, in this case one plumped by a stout, soft, mild green chile. One reader insists Juanita’s version of rellenos pales in comparison with its crispier cousins; I say it’s better.
Casa Juanita’s, 908 11th St. NW, (202) 737-2520. —Brett Anderson
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