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First Bite

First Bite: Caribbean Cabana

A taste of Trinidad in the Farmers Market.
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Caribbean Cabana combination plate (photo by Eve Hill-Agnus)

I waited to visit Caribbean Cabana in the Farmers Market until I could gather my Trinidadian friend, who invited her Trini friend, both of them anticipating the visit with the eagerness of those who know the chances for such tastes of home cooking are precious and few outside home.

Owners Robert and Yolande Plaza are from Trinidad, and so, for this beach-shack inspired stand in the newly designed Shed 2, there had to be popping colors and details like straw-seated chairs. There had to be the sodas—mango soda, ginger beer, and the fuchsia-colored, clove-spiked hibiscus drink called sorrel—that in Trinidad would go by the name of sweet pop, not soda.

It’s a fascinating cuisine, with inflections you don’t get in other parts of the Caribbean; it’s not quite Jamaican though many of the dishes dovetail.

But this is why it’s helpful to have guides. Do not, for example, miss the doubles, two disks of quickly fried, puffy, yeast-leavened dough that sandwich a mound of curried chickpeas. You would be missing the single most important Trini street food. The dough is scented with cumin; the channa (chickpeas) spiked with a bit of tart tamarind chutney. No forks allowed. Tear off a piece from the top flap; pinch and devour. They cost you $4 and come wrapped in foil.

In Trinidad, doubles might be served with any number of chutneys—tamarind, as they are here, or green mango or coconut. So ubiquitous are they, and so beloved, that doubles-sellers line the street outside the airport, my friend tells me (and the Plazas confirm); standard practice requires one stop outside the airport and maybe another before they reach home each time they visit, so deeply have they craved them. It’s true: it’s hard to resist the circles of puffy dough with their soft, spicy filling.

Roti, second in the street food pantheon, is a flat griddled crepe, the thin sheet of dough pulled and stretched by Yolande’s deft hands and rolled to incorporate a dry lentil filling. They’ll come wrapped around goat curry or chicken for something more substantial.

Caribbean Cabana combination plate (photo by Eve Hill-Agnus)
Caribbean Cabana combination plate (photo by Eve Hill-Agnus)

The larger plates are pricier, but they’re copious. We loved shrimp in a bright yellow curry, plump and cooked to order in the little kitchen whose pass window’s tickets hang from a row of clothespins. The Trinidadian style of curry is not Indian-style, not quite. It’s rich with coconut milk, but simpler and more direct, with turmeric dominating and fewer warming spices. Sides for the larger plates include rice and pigeon peas; cabbage slaw with a slick of sesame oil; macaroni pie, a decadent version of mac and cheese, served by the bread-crumb-topped slice and so rich with eggs, milk, and cheese it stands up by itself; plump, soft sweet plantains.

It’s not on the menu, but you may want to see if Yolande will make you a plain fry-bake, a puff of dough like an enormous jelly doughnut without a filling, which they otherwise use for their sandwiches.

The Plazas talk easily about the island, their reminiscences full of taste memories. The food tastes that way—like they’re bringing those flavors back.

The place is warm and friendly and full of banter; stick around and chat, and you’re family in no time. Regular customers know that specials exist off the menu–things like callaloo and aloo pie. They come and request them; they walk away visibly crestfallen when the braised oxtail or the pillowy fry-bake bread run out.

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