Trini Taste Test
West Indian roti pack the intense flavors of New Jersey’s Trinidadian cuisine. EthnicNJ tried six versions from popular local Trini spots to find a favorite.
I first tasted roti at Caribbean Cuisine in South Orange. The restaurant has since closed (the building on First Street now houses Town Hall Deli of Jersey Sloppy Joe fame), but for a time it was my go to place for these hefty bundles of island spices, meat and carbs.
Named for the South Asian flatbread brought to the Caribbean by Indian laborers, West Indian roti are hearty portable meals that capture the multicultural influences in Trinidadian cuisine. Stewed vegetables, meat or fish, mixed with potatoes and chickpeas (channa), all spiced with intense Caribbean curries, are wrapped in the thin, flaky whole wheat bread until the entire roti package is bursting at the seams. You can order the flatbread on the side, but I prefer the wraps. Another Trini dish, “Buss up Shot,” because it resembles a “torn up shirt,” features strips of ripped up roti.
Essex county is home to the most New Jersey residents hailing from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobabo, with significant communities living in Newark, East Orange and Orange. Earlier this summer, I enlisted EthnicNJ’s college staffer (and daughter) Samantha to retrieve roti from a few of Essex county’s most popular Trini spots, taking full advantage of her visiting boyfriend, who hails from Port-of-Spain (via Maryland), to help judge their relative merits. A follow-up trip added two more restaurants to the mix.
Our Essex County loops connected five Trini spots that get strong reviews online: Limin’s Caribbean Cafe in East Orange; Castaway, Trinbago Roti and Cafe Trinbago in Orange; and Leela’s Trinidad Cuisine in West Orange.
Roti would be the baseline test. A single meat-filled roti can weigh at least a pound – the perfect take out food to taste test at home. The EthnicNJ teams left with instructions to bring home roti from each restaurant.
Limin’s, on the corner of Winans and Main Streets in East Orange, features a bamboo bar and tropical ambience, with loud Soca music playing on a Sunday afternoon. Our tasters purchased one curry chicken and one curry goat roti ($9 each). They also ordered a couple of typical Trindadian sides, pholourie, fried dough balls served with a tamarind dipping sauce, and aloo pie, a spicy mashed potato samosa. Limin’s menu ranges from popular snacks, like curried chickpea filled “doubles” and beef pies, to entrees like curry duck, stew oxtails and escoviche (battered fish).
At the second stop, Leela’s, they ordered the same two rotis to go ($9 each). Leela’s was a simple space on Main Street in West Orange with bare walls, a counter and about 25 seats. Unfortunately, since our first visit, Leela’s has disappeared, replaced by Benji’s Taqueria. Castaway Restaurant and Bar on Watchung Avenue in Orange, more of a nighttime spot, was closed on Sunday afternoon, so the first excursion produced a total of four rotis to try.
Back home for the taste test, we spread the bounty out across the kitchen table. The entire EthnicNJ team, and a neighbor who visited at just the right time, sampled each roti. All had that powerful curry base around well-stewed meat, both the chicken and the goat. Limin’s rotis are quite large, bursting with chunks of chicken and goat on the bone. Leela’s were not so overstuffed, with boneless chicken, making them easier to eat. The consensus favorites were the rotis from Leela’s. Leela’s potato and chickpea filling was slightly spicier than Limin’s. The texture of the roti wrap was also softer and moister. Simplicity and strong flavors won out. Our Trini judge gave high marks to the sides from Limin’s, however, including the notably spicy aloo pie, which reminded him of home cooking.
Another benefit of the first excursion: our team brought back a few bottles of Angostura Lemon, Lime & Bitters, or “LLB,” a local Trini soft drink. LLB is a fine drink to wash down the spicy food. Turns out it is an even better ready-made mixer for rum. We also sampled a couple snack packets, imported from Trinidad: sweet and spicy tamarind balls, and something called “pepper mango.” The tamarind balls are OK, too sweet for me. The pepper mango, a strangely iridescent shade of bright red, are, let’s say, an acquired taste, more chemical pickle than pepper or mango.
After realizing that Leela’s had closed, EthnicNJ visited two more Trini restaurants. On our second roti trip, we tried Trinbago Roti on Main Street in Orange, NJ, and Cafe Trinbago, across from the White Castle on Orange’s Central Avenue. Trinbago Roti is a tiny storefront with a takeout counter and a just a few tables in Orange’s bustling commercial downtown. Roti are the focus, but the menu includes a range of Trini snacks, pastries, meat and fish dishes. Cafe Trinbago is a little bigger, with a menu of snacks, roti, and dishes like Macaroni Pie, Crab & Dumplins and Bake & Pumpkin. At both places, the rotis are assembled fresh, with layers of roti flatbread, chickpea flour, spiced potatoes, channa and your choice of meat or vegetable filling. At Trinbago, we ordered boneless curried chicken ($8.50). At Cafe Trinbago, they had no boneless, so we went with curried chicken on the bone ($8).
Cafe Trinbago’s was the largest of all the roti we tried, weighing in at a whopping 2.8 pounds. Both flatbreads were very good, supple and moist. Aside from being more manageable, we again preferred the taste of the boneless chicken roti. There was less chickpea flour between roti layers, which can taste a little scratchy, and the spice mixtures in Trinbago’s roti were more assertive. Considering all six we tasted, Trinbago’s and Leela’s boneless curry chicken roti were the clear favorites. We will happily visit Trinbago, Limin’s and Cafe Trinbago again to try more of the menu. And if Leela’s reopens somewhere, please let us know.
There are many Trini and Caribbean places to explore in Jersey. In Essex County alone, there are five Trini restaurants on the EthnicNJ map. Grab a roti to go, or try a full plate of food, to find your favorite.
3 Spots for Trini Food in New Jersey
Cafe Trinbago – Orange
454 Central Avenue
Limin’s – East Orange
5 Winans Street
Trinbago Roti – Orange
169 Main Street