Intrepid Vegetarian: West Indian Richmond Hill

In New York, where pork belly abounds and adventurous eaters gulp down still-squiggling octopus tentacles, being a vegetarian means some of the city’s most intriguing and tempting cuisines are difficult to navigate. But rather than accepting our fate as second-class culinary citizens, we bring you Intrepid Vegetarian—a series of restaurant reviews in which our writers dare to go veg in meaty places. (Special thanks to our Richmond Hill guides, Tricia and Tom, and our companions, Deanna, Jared and Sajan.)

West Indian food is beloved among New Yorkers for its meaty stews, spicy beef-stuffed patties and herb-rubbed meats. But on a recent excursion to Richmond Hill, Queens, we found much for vegetarians to love in the neighborhood’s Guyanese and Trini-bagian restaurants and bakeries.

We started at Sonny’s Roti Shop, which specializes in doubles, a favorite street food in Trinidad and Tobago that combines spiced, stewed chickpeas with two pieces of flat bread (thus the name “doubles”).

A doubles at Sonny's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

A doubles at Sonny's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Sonny’s chickpeas were stewed with onions, cumin and other Indian spices—just like my Indian mother-in-law’s chana (stewed chickpeas). The flavorful beans were topped with a dab of sweet tamarind sauce and rolled up in the slightly sweet, fluffy flat bread.

We washed our doubles down with Sonny’s homemade sorrel, an ominous-looking jet black beverage with a slightly bitter taste and sweet, cinnamony undertones—a combination that reminded one of us of cough syrup.

Then it was off to Little Guyana Bake Shop for a sweet interlude. We couldn’t resist trying the colorfully named black eye, a flaky, buttery pastry stuffed with sweet but earthy mashed black-eyed peas. Clearly a legacy of Guyana’s large Chinese community, the black eye’s flavors recalled the baked red bean–stuffed buns found in Chinatown bakeries (egg-washed crust and all!).

Black eye at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Black eye at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

The salara (red coconut roll) and pine tart (pineapple tart) were less impressive. The salara’s sweet, dense bread contained seams of red-dyed coconut flakes that tasted (oddly) of almond extract.

The salara (red coconut roll) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

The salara (red coconut roll) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

The pine tart’s crust was thick and tasteless, and its pineapple filling was overly sweet and gooey, lacking the subtle flavors of cinnamon and brown sugar that signify a good pine tart.

Pine tart (pineapple tart) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Pine tart (pineapple tart) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

We also tried a piece of cassava pone (a cake made from the potato-like root vegetable also called yucca). It was extremely dense, moist and mildly sweet, with a buttery, coconut-y flavor and a distinctly earthy, potato-like aftertaste. Some of us loved it; others were not fans.

Cassava pone (made from the root vegetable also known as yucca) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Cassava pone (made from the root vegetable also known as yucca) at Little Guyana Bake Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Next stop: Anil’s Roti Shop, where we tried Guyanese phulourie (pronounced: pil-ow-ree), deep-fried fritters made from flour and ground yellow lentils—a close cousin to the North Indian vada.

Phulourie (deep-fried fritters made from flour and ground yellow lentils) at Anil's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Phulourie (deep-fried fritters made from flour and ground yellow lentils) at Anil's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

On their own, the phulourie were chewy, oily and generally unremarkable. But they were much improved by a deep dunk in Anil’s spicy tamarind sauce, a watery mixture of tangy tamarind, pepper and some kind of mild herb—perhaps oregano or thyme.

We also tried Anil’s dahl roti, a thin, griddled flat bread stuffed with mashed yellow lentils. The roti was dry and crumbly, and its lentil filling was only mildly spiced.

Dahl roti (a thin, griddled flat bread stuffed with mashed yellow lentils) at Anil's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Dahl roti (a thin, griddled flat bread stuffed with mashed yellow lentils) at Anil's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

But another flavorful side dish—mango curry—saved the day. The curry, which is eaten at room temperature with the dahl roti, consisted of long, thick slices of sweet mango cooked with spices and tangy tamarind. Like Indian mango chutney, the curry’s initial sweetness was swiftly followed by a satisfyingly spicy kick.

Mango curry at Anil's Roti Shop.  Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Mango curry at Anil's Roti Shop. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

We washed down our carb-heavy snacks at Anil’s with bottles of Ting, a Jamaican grapefruit soda, and chewy tamarind balls, a digestive made from tangy tamarind pulp, sugar and spicy pepper.

Tamarind balls, a digestive made from tangy tamarind pulp, sugar and spicy pepper. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Tamarind balls, a digestive made from tangy tamarind pulp, sugar and spicy pepper. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

After a long, chilly walk east on Liberty Ave., we rolled into Sybil’s Restaurant & Bakery, which was packed with customers angling for access to the small ordering counter.

Our stomachs were happily full, so it was easy to resist the food on the steam table, which looked a bit worse for the wear. But we couldn’t pass up the chance to try Sybil’s black cake, a favorite dessert in Guyana that is eaten only at Christmas or weddings.

Black cake at Sybil’s Restaurant & Bakery. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

Black cake at Sybil’s Restaurant & Bakery. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

The dense, coal-black cake was soft and moist with strong flavors of vanilla, rum, mildly sweet fruits and even milder hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was utterly delicious—and well worth the frigid trek along Liberty Ave.

Anil’s Roti Shop, 125-01 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens, 718-845-2800

Little Guyana Bake Shop, 116-04 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens, 718-843-6530

Sonny’s Roti Shop, 118-06 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens, 718-835-7255

Sybil’s Restaurant & Bakery, 132-17 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens, 718-835-9235

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