Caribbean’s Finest offers ingenious Haitian cusine out of an unassuming storefront
It’s not always delightful to bust the bonds of one’s ignorance, but Caribbean’s Finest did me that favour in the most delightful way. When I spotted the sign on a drive down 118 Avenue, I thought to myself, “Self, there’s a Jamaican place I should go try.”
It didn’t occur to me then that Haiti is also part of the Caribbean. It turns out that Caribbean’s Finest offers you the taste of Haitian cuisine, which I have never tried before. Luckily two of my perennial co-diners were available to discover it with me.
In the style of other multicultural restaurants on Alberta Avenue, Caribbean’s Finest is nothing fancy inside, though the ambience-hostile overhead fluorescent lights expose it as very clean. Its wallpaper pretends to be a stone-and-mortar wall. A flatscreen TV showing NCAA basketball was well-received by one co-diner. Synth island pop throbbed remotely in the background.
One regular co-diner, who decided to forgo the meal in favour of theatre, sniffed that such a meal would likely consist of meat and rice and she was right to a degree, but she was mistaken that this would somehow be run-of-the-mill. A side of rice and peas (beans, really) is the unsung hero of Caribbean food, and if the Haitian variant wasn’t quite as allspice-intensive as Jamaica’s, it did not want for flavour.
And so it was that we made meal out of chicken drumsticks ($12), fried goat ($17) and whole red snapper ($23), each served with a side of rice and beans, with an order of Creole fritters ($5) to start. The shy but efficient server warned us the fish would take 25 minutes, but in the spirit of tropical island easygoingness, we decided we weren’t in a hurry.
The fritters came quickly—salty, dense balls of golden-fried dough with a coconut-curry dip. They were tasty, as salty fried things often are, but the real revelation was underneath them. It looked like a layer of cabbage-carrot slaw, but was a heretofore unknown preparation that the menu, and indeed the Haitian people, call pikliz. It’s a bit like the curtido you get with Central American pupusas, but much spicier, thanks to the addition of scotch bonnet (a.k.a. habanero) peppers, that essential element of Caribbean cookery that’s also a great way to make your eyes water. Pikliz is potent but delicious, with a pungency reminiscent of mustard pickles. If your spice threshold is medium-low, best to eat around it.
The rest of the meal seemed to take less than 25 minutes to arrive and came all at once. I wasn’t really expecting much from the drumsticks, to be honest, but they’d been marinated in epis (a Haitian spice blend of scallions, bell peppers, garlic, parsley and basil) and lime, and roasted to juicy perfection. This might have been my favourite meat, but sharing the order meant we only got one each, which was disappointing.
The fried goat meat was also well made, with a minimum of bone shards and a maximum of chewy, goaty flavour. The whole red snapper, cooked to fall-apart perfection, was served in a lovely fish-shaped tray soaking in curry-coconut sauce that heightened to the creamy consistency of the fish.
Each plate came with a small heap of pikliz—a little goes a long way—and slices of fried plantain, with more of the coconut-curry dip on the side. More importantly, each came with a generous mound of rice variant. One was just steamed rice, so we’ll just skip ahead to the rice with black beans, a clear relative of Jamaican rice and peas tinted brown by the eponymous legume and flavoured with the holy trinity of habanero, coconut and thyme. The fish came with a side of mushroom rice, which bore a similar earthy tint and carried a lode of lima beans, a textbook example of umami, if you haven’t tried that yet. Beneath all these flavours and textures hummed the habanero heat from the pikliz.
As diners who thought we had eaten most of the variants to be had on Edmonton’s diaspora-catching ethnic food scene, Haitian food was a new one for us. We were lucky we had Caribbean’s Finest’s style of food, for the certainly highlighted its unique appeal. If you too are dismissive of rice and beans, you should probably get in there and liberate yourself from such ignorance.
8815 118 Ave.