It's hard to guess the ethnic identity at work at Taste of the Caribbean until you look at the menu translations. Grilled fish, for instance, is listed first as pescado frito in Spanish, but then also as pwason fri in Haitian Creole.
The Haitian twist makes all the difference on this menu, and it makes this tiny restaurant hiding at the back of a Gretna strip mall worth the trip.
Just a few dishes appear exotic — fried goat or curried conch. But even good grilled chicken — or poule boukanen in the menu's parlance — is different thanks to a robust and distinctive bouquet of Haitian seasoning. The meat was practically paneed with a finely ground blend of spices redolent with thyme, cilantro, lemon, peppers and, most of all, garlic.
Then there's the gumbo, at first a familiar enough version with sausage, abundant crab and miniscule shrimp. But there's something different about the deep-brown roux, something busier, fuller and spicier than the New Orleans Creole gumbo it still closely resembles, like a relative once removed.
This is the handiwork of Elianne Charles, who runs the restaurant with her family. They emigrated from Haiti in the 1980s and settled in New Orleans in 2003. They opened Taste of the Caribbean last year, and though it's their first restaurant, it's also in some ways the continuation of a restaurant Charles' grandmother ran on their home island for years.
Many of the dishes share the same fundamental elements. There's the subtly sweet rice cooked with red beans and also the pikliz, a pickled, habanero-spiked coleslaw that's so intense it has to be used sparingly as a garnish rather than spooned up like a side.
The mellow rice and the zap of that pikliz work best in concert with the kitchen's heartier dishes, like griot, or fried hunks of pork shoulder, and the que bef, or curried oxtails. My favorite dish is the grilled snapper, served intact from tail to eyes, its skin charred and crusted with sea salt. With rice, a salad and logs of crispy yuca, it's a $15 whole-fish feast that takes two trays to deliver to the table.
Eating at Taste of the Caribbean entails some common hallmarks of a very casual family-run restaurant, which can be endearing or annoying depending on your expectations. You get the feeling Charles would rather have you watch her cook in the kitchen than explain menu nuisances at your table. And there is a tendency to overcook, so speak up if you like skirt steak medium and shrimp tender.
There's no bar, but on the right day your meal might include a sample of some heady, homemade coconut drink decanted from a recycled vodka bottle. And a new sauce might appear halfway through the meal if you show enthusiasm for hot spice. One of these turned out to be an utterly delicious, oily, salty, rust-colored slurry packed with garlic, strung with herbs and fortified with chicken bones.
As always when exploring an unfamiliar cuisine, showing some respectful enthusiasm is the key to learning the ropes here.