by: Peter Aiken
photography by: Peter Aiken and Tom McGlinn
I had been around the world before I stepped foot on Nantucket – Samoa, Thailand, Nepal, Afghanistan. Cy’s Green Coffee Pot on South Water Street, now the Atlantic Café, didn’t do it for me. I needed food from abroad like an old British colonial soldier who retires from India to London but demands his daily curry with a side of chutney. I search for the unusual in cuisine. While Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel was hunched over a hot stove in Provincetown as an apprentice, I was in Singapore, reveling in food stalls along Bugis Street enjoying bird’s nest soup with a side of crunchy fried chicken necks – only the necks. They were dipped in an exotic sauce and eaten whole – skin, meat and bone.
By good fortune, I tasted ethnic cuisine at the first Nantucket guest house I found in 1975, a budget inn on Warren Street run by Peter Debarros. His mother, Anna Gonsalves, was from the island of Fogo in Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. She spoke Portuguese. For holidays she came over from New Bedford and cooked Cabo Verde style. We had bowls of “manjoup,” a thick stew with beef, nuggets of corn, kale and spices. Helpings of “jag,” a paprika rice with onion, garlic and beans, were on the side. And my favorite, moist tubers of white manioca, also called yuca or casava, accompanied the main dishes to mellow the taste buds. So, imagine my delight, when over the last decade, Nantucket’s increasingly diverse population began to open up restaurants featuring the foods of their native lands.
There was a long dry spell of ethnic food on Nantucket. When Sushi by Yoshi opened in 1990, local cuisine began to turn around. Clam chowder is great once in a while, but Yoshi’s bowl of Father Mark’s Udon is an exciting and filling noodle alternative. Maybe Melville’s complaint in “Moby-Dick” that the only thing Nantucketers ever served was chowder morning, noon and night was finally getting addressed. These days there’s a blossoming of ethnic cuisine on Nantucket and not just in more expensive restaurants like Lo La 41 or Cinco. I’m talking about restaurants where the chefs who cook the food are from the same lands as the patrons who eat it. El Rincon Salvadoreño’s chef, Marcos Tejada, says that about 55 percent of his customers are “Americans” and 45 percent are “Spanish.”
A Taste of El Salvador Returning to El Rincon, how about a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner year round that serves good, fresh food at reasonable prices? Try an egg sandwich with home fries and black beans for $6.25 or splurge at $9.50 on one of the tastiest breakfasts on-island – the desayuno tipico with two eggs, refried beans, fresh mozzarella, fresh cream, tortilla, bacon, avocado and fried plantain. Take a tortilla and slap on homemade mozzarella, avocado and the runny yolk of an egg over-easy. Get the hot sauce on the side and put a dollop on top. That mouthful of flavor takes me back to Isla Mujeres, 1978, a central market, and the sounds of an approaching fiesta.Devon Francis, new owner of the Rotary Restaurant, says his customers are 60 percent Jamaican/Caribbean. While sampling his Jamaican specials, I found that to be true. Often, if I didn’t get there early, he would sell out of items like ackee and salt cod or oxtail, popular with the Jamaican natives.
El Rincon is family-run. Marcos and his wife Dora grew up in Chalatenango, El Salvador. Having a brother killed in a crossfire during the civil war there, he and his family decided to move to El Norte. Marcos may look familiar – he worked behind the counter at Black-Eyed Susan’s for 15 years. A month ago he became an American citizen, which means, among other benefits, that he can get a liquor license at El Rincon. Along with the ethnic plates at El Rincon there’s an “American” menu that includes pancakes, French toast, cheeseburgers and chicken-salad wraps. However, most go for the “platos tipicos,” dishes served just the same as in the old country.
The appetizers include thick tamales with chicken and potato-filled corn masa and the unique pupusas, which are a type of Salvadoran tortilla stuffed with cheese and lorocco (an edible flower) mixed into the corn meal. These tortillas are not like those of Mexico or the American Southwest. Mexican tortillas are thin, some crispy, others flexible. Salvadoran tortillas and pupusas at El Rincon are thicker and heavier. Shaped like a child’s mud pie, if you Frisbee one across the room of a noisy diner, it would hurt. You put cheese and salsa or guacamole on them. “I have one employee whose only job is to make tortillas and pupusas,” says Marcos. “He starts early every morning and we can go through 500 tortillas in a day.”
Soups are served on weekends only and include a chicken soup that exudes good health from its fresh ingredients and a special soup Marcos calls Mondongo but my travel book calls “sopa de pata,” a national dish of El Salvador that contains cows’ hooves, tripe, plantain, garlic and corn still on its cob. I preferred the chicken soup but Mondongo is the Hispanic rave. The consistency of the cow’s foot was an entirely new experience for me. I told Marcos that Mondongo wasn’t my cup of tea and he said, “I tell Americans to try it and they love it. For next week they come and order Mondongo only. They come back just for the soup.”
OK – I didn’t get the Americans’ names but they know who they are. They are international in taste and make Nantucket proud. The entrées are easily translated and straightforward. I enjoyed the shrimp dish with its garlicky sauce but didn’t care for the fried fish, which was an insipid whole tilapia. But friends have said they get this dish frequently and love it. The carne asada, grilled steak, can be right on one night and a bit tough on another. El Rincon is a restaurant work in progress. Marcos understands.
“You know I heard some complaints about service here,” he says. “Just pretend you’re in El Salvador, in another culture. Try your Spanish.” The help all speak Spanish, the TV in the main dining room is left on at odd times (like during my meal), ethnic music occasionally comes out of loudspeakers, then mysteriously goes off – but I enjoy this restaurant. There is no pretension within its walls. It is unpredictable, but comfortable at the same time. Patronize El Rincon and step into another land.
Jamaican Cuisine More than Jerk Chicken
Jamaican cooking is offered at two island venues. Stubby’s on the strip is take-out and The Rotary at 1 Sparks Avenue has three dining areas plus take-out. Stubby’s offers a Jamaican dish that’s been a favorite of mine since it opened in 2000 – curried mutton. Though it’s goat meat in Jamaica, it’s lamb here. This is a complete meal for $9 and includes a small salad, a large portion of rice and beans and “mutton” cooked to a spicy perfection and mixed in with potatoes, carrots and onions. The fact that the meat is tasty, the price is right and the flavor not Strip run-of-the-mill always surprises me. Gordon, the Jamaican chef, also produces a jerk chicken dinner that’s a delicious bargain at $8. Devon Francis, owner of the Rotary Restaurant, serves dishes morning until night, many from the previous Rotary menu – fried chicken, subs, burgers and the best lobster roll on island – as well as Jamaican specials. Some of the specials are so special they often disappear from the menu. Those were the ones I wanted.
Jerk food evolved from Jamaican history. The Taino Indians of the interior used an aromatic wood from allspice trees to slow-smoke wild boar seasoned with hot peppers, thyme and onion. The sweet-smelling wood permeated the meat. When escaped slaves, called Maroons, learned this cooking style from the Indians, they brought the technique to coastal settlements. Today, the best traditional jerk dishes are sold along Jamaica’s Boston Bay, on the east coast. Nantucket chefs can't quite duplicate this quality of jerk – they don't have the allspice wood, the allspice berries, or the large roasting drum. The Rotary does well with an oven and Devon’s jerk pork is a tasty hint of what that wild boar in the hills once tasted like. The discovery on the Rotary menu for me was ackee and salt fish. This is the national dish of Jamaica, using a fruit grown only in the tropics. Ackee is a fruit that is poisonous until its petals open up to reveal three black seeds. Its scientific name is Blighia sapida, from the infamous Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny On The Bounty,” who was moving botanical discoveries around the world. It’s used fresh in Jamaica in a sauté of salted dried codfish. Devon has to use canned ackee but the result is a salty delight with a taste of the sea within. It looks like scrambled eggs and sells out by mid-morning. Just the fruit of ackee is available on the Jamaican shelf at Grand Union for $20 a can. For fresh ackee – vacation Jamaica, mon.
Devon serves what Jamaican’s call “festival” with the ackee dinner and he is a master at this corn muffin-like fried dough. He also serves it a la carte so try a few with whatever you order. He was a pastry chef at The India House and still does cake orders on the side. Sorry Gordon of Stubby’s, Devon’s festival is the best on the island.
Thai Food in Two Spaces
Like Jamaican food, but more so, Thai food in America is an approximation of similar dishes served in Bangkok. Some spices are unavailable, some fruits and vegetables are unknown in this hemisphere, and canned substitutes can’t compare. Canned baby corn, for example, is absolutely tasteless. Forget about it – they include it for its cute looks but it’s a joke. Fresh baby corn in a wok stir-fry with almost anything is an explosion of flavor. It crunches in your mouth, like it has just been picked off its baby stalk. You have to go to Thailand for that experience.
KMum’s specials include a lobster phad Thai, which is a fried noodle dish interlaced with slivers of succulent lobster, and a chicken masaman curry that includes spiced potato chunks and onions. Masaman refers to the Muslim cooking style of the southern Thai peninsula. The portions are large. My phad Thai take-out became part of two meals. Som tam is a classic Thai salad. It’s a fresh treat locals love to eat at the floating markets of Bangkok. In a stone mortar and pestle, boat women crush strips of unripe green papaya, carrots, chili peppers, lime juice, fish sauce and small shrimp. It is a flaming spicy hot dish and loaded with vitamins.What about hot chili peppers or hot curries? Forget about that also. Thai chefs in America might get sued for assault and battery by fire down the gullet if they spiced here as in Bangkok. So everything is Americanized. Having said that, one can still enjoy delicious meals at both the take-out Thai Kitchen in the Nantucket Trading Post on Nobadeer Farm Road and the take-out/dining room Thai menu at Alice’s Restaurant at the airport. Thais in the U.S. use nicknames because Americans can’t pronounce their real names. So at Alice’s Restaurant, the wonderful chef known as KMum is also a master fruit and vegetable carver with the real name of Phuangphen Suwatthee. Khun Mum (Mrs. Mother) is fine by her since she is a grandmother two times now. KMum’s resume is impressive. She has cooked at some of the finest venues in Thailand.
KMum’s som tam is Americanized (unripe papaya is hard to get) but a tasty, healthy alternative. She uses cabbage for papaya and adds carrots, tomatoes and cashews with a Siamese salad dressing to top it off. Order plates of this, along with plates of phad Thai and masman curry. For a party, call a day ahead and she’ll carve her special pineapple cart surrounded by edible fruits and vegetables. Wong, who you may know as the shingling foreman of Wong At Work, runs the Thai Kitchen seven days a week with an emphasis on fresh coffee, Dunkin Donuts, lunch-time Thai grab-and-go and dinner Thai take-out. The take-out orders must be phoned in ahead of time. Local phone books carry his menus in the yellow pages. Wong says there is a law forbidding one from walking into the Thai Kitchen to order take-out while inside (so there are no take-out menus at the counter). To get around this and speed matters up at lunch, Wong offers two or three grab-and-go Thai meals already boxed and ready to walk out with – once you get past him at the cash register beside the only exit. I’ve had a teriyaki beef and a barbecued chicken from grab-and-go, and both were excellent full lunches at around $12. No mini-portions are served here. Wong’s dinner chicken phad Thai entrée at $16.95 can feed two normal humans if they have salads and soup beforehand. With a phad Thai entrée and a Penang Beef Curry entrée that comes with Jasmine rice, two people could sit down and finish the food but they wouldn’t be walking away quickly after that.
My favorite entrée on Wong’s menu is a dish I often had in Bangkok, called kai geow. It’s labeled egg fu yung but that’s misleading because it's tastier than that American Chinese dish. It’s ground pork in scrambled eggs, seasoned with garlic, bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage and scallions. Ask for a container of Thai fish sauce with fresh chili in it and dribble that over the top. Don’t worry about the smell of fish sauce – it makes eggs taste amazingly better. Fish sauce is loaded with vitamins, and a variant of it called “garum” was the favorite condiment of the Roman army under Julius Caesar. The Brits got so hooked on it in India they developed their own version from fermented anchovies called Worcestershire sauce. Nantucket’s Original Sushi
Sushi by Yoshi – open for 18 years with few changes – is the tried and true stop on this list. After being robbed at his former Japanese restaurant in Connecticut, Yoshi was always happy with his 2 East Chestnut Street location, across the street from the police station. There’s a small dining area with tables and a bar to sit where you can watch sushi being prepared. Take-out is available all day and his huge party platters of sushi and sashimi are island standbys. Yoshi’s sushi menu is a full page. Have a look beforehand at his locally-produced website, http://www.sushibyyoshi.com to he,lp with selection. Sashimi is raw fish, and sushi is raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed, except when it contains cooked fish or vegetables. The cooked fish sushi is usually eel, crab and shrimp, and the vegetable sushi often contains cucumber, burdock, asparagus and avocado – the last being a fruit with a high amount of healthy fat. It’s the tuna substitute in vegetable rolls.
An ideal Yoshi meal would start with a bowl of miso soup, soothing to digestion and ubiquitous in Japan. Miso is made from a soybean paste base and is seasoned with seaweed and scallions. If you stay at any Japanese “ryokan” (B&B), which is really the only way to go in Japan, you come to love miso soup. Follow soup with a garlic tuna roll, raw tuna flecked with marinated garlic, or, for the raw-fish avoidant, a tempura asparagus roll, which has asparagus coated in a light wheat flour batter and deep fried in vegetable oil. The pieces wrapped in rice are dipped, as you like, in a tempura sauce.
Try a side plate of the shumai, five steamed shrimp dumplings, and cups of heart-healthy green tea. End the repast with banana tempura, topped off with ice cream. And sake always helps a Japanese meal but you must bring your own. Yoshi will explain the right temperature for sake – not too hot.
If you go:
El Rincon Salvadoreño Restaurant
17 Old South Road 508-332-4749
Breakfast 7-11:30 a.m., lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10 p.m. year round, 7 days a week
Breakfasts $6 - $11 (steak and eggs), lunch/dinner entrees $11 - $17 No credit cards
8 Broad Street, Steamboat Wharf 508-228-0028
6:30 a.m.-10 p.m., 7 days a week
Jamaican Specials $8 - $9
The Rotary Restaurant
One Sparks Ave, at Milestone Rotary 508-228-9505
Breakfast, lunch, dinner 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m., every day
Egg muffin $3.25 to Jamaican-style red snapper at $15 and 12-piece fried chicken dinner at $24
at the Airport Terminal, use Airport parking lot 508-228-6005
Thai menu takeout and dinner from 3:30 p.m.-10 p.m., daily except Tuesday
Appetizers $7-$10, soups $6, entrees $11- $21
Thai Kitchen at the Nantucket Trading Post
2 Nobadeer Farm Road 508-228-6661
Apps $5 - $8, dinner entrees $8.50 - $19 (Shrimp Phad Thai)
Sushi by Yoshi
2 East Chestnut Street 508-228-1801
Open 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. M-F, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. S-S
Apps $6 - $15, entrées $12- $17, Sushi Rolls $7 - $22
Sushi Party Platters $70 - $115 (dinner for 4, appetizers for 10)