The bold black-and-white awning above Garifuna Flava at 63rd Street and Western Avenue beckoned us to “Taste the Flava,” and the food inside did not disappoint. The menu at Garifuna Flava reflects the cooking of the Garifuna people in Belize and elsewhere in Central America, a fusion derived from African, Latin American, and indigenous cuisines. Fish, rice, corn, and bananas play prominent roles, and offerings range from familiar Latin standards with a Caribbean twist (guacamole served with plantain chips) to homey, comforting dishes offered few places else (cow foot soup, cassava cake.) We sat down with some ginger beer and Ting, a Caribbean grapefruit soda, and set to sampling.
The panades ($3.75 for five), orange corn patties filled with a mixture of fish and refried beans, were the stand-out of our meal. Each finger-long patty burst with fresh corn flavor, warm and crispy on the slightly greasy outside but soft on the inside. The piquant cabbage-onion relish served with it complemented the sweetness of the corn, and the additional hot sauce of vinegar, onion and habanero peppers introduced a subtle heat that slowly builds. Garnaches ($2.25 for three), another dish built on the crispy corn model, were good but not stellar. Crunchy fried tortillas were spread with a thin layer of refried beans, chopped onion, cabbage, and cheese, and topped with ketchup that our server swore was a traditional ingredient in Belize. It worked surprisingly well with the sweet and vinegary onion. But the bright orange cheese tasted like it was sprinkled straight from the bag, and the combination of ketchup and pre-shredded cheese was reminiscent of teenage party food. They improved considerably with a generous dose of Marie Sharp’s Belizean hot sauce.
Two soft corn appetizers followed, both showcasing the versatility of fine-ground cornmeal. The single chicken tamale in the tamales appetizer ($3.50) was as long as the plate and as thick as my forearm, containing an entire bone-in chicken leg surrounded by soft vegetables and beans. Though it came unwrapped, it had been steamed in a banana leaf instead of a cornhusk, and the seasoning of the meat was heavy on unexpected spices like clove. The chicken was meltingly tender and quickly soaked its cornmeal wrapping, which was thinner and softer than its Mexican counterpart. Ducunu, described as “fresh corn grated and seasoned for a distinct taste,” was a soft, creamy mound of cornmeal served in a cornhusk, something like a fine-grained polenta in texture. It was mildly sweet, like fresh corn is, and flavored with a mystery seasoning that the chef keeps a secret even from our server. It could be bland by itself, but it was the perfect foil for the meaty tamale, which had so little cornmeal of its own.
After tasting such impressive variations on a single ingredient in our appetizers, we decided to try a wider range of Belizean entrees. The sautÃ©ed shrimp ($12) were plump and flavorful, lightly coated in a buttery, slightly sweet brown sauce flavored with garlic and onion. The ripe plantains that came with it were very good, as was the somewhat incongruous potato salad, with potato cubes diced small and a hefty dash of black pepper. A more adventurous choice was the darasa with stewed pigtails, in which an island of grated green bananas floated in a tangy tomato sauce next to fist-sized chunks of meat complete with skin and bone. If we hadn’t known it was banana, we never would have guessed: the gelid mash was purple-brown and paste-like, with a reflective surface that held the shape of its mold. It was like pudding on the tongue, with no discernible particles, and it had a mild, starchy flavor like that of taro. The stewed pig tails were shockingly bright pink, and the fatty meat fell off the gleaming white bone.
Our final entrÃ©e, a rich fish stew called hudut baruru could easily have fed two even without our appetizers. The thick, savory vegetable gravy was loaded with translucent cabbage pieces and enormous discs of kingfish, cross-sectioned through the skin, meat, and vertebrae into pinwheels three inches in diameter. The effort required to pop out the sections of meat and work out the small bones was worth it for the dense meat, dry and heavy like tuna or swordfish with an agreeable peppery flavor. Instead of bread, we mopped up the gravy with pieces of hudut, or mashed green plantains, which came in an enormous springy ball with the texture of Play-Doh and a starchy taste similar to the darasa.
The restaurant turns one year old in May, and they hope to bring in more live bands and Belizean entertainment in the well-appointed banquet hall next door. Lively Caribbean music, yellow-checked tablecloths, and sepia photographs of Belizean villages make the fluorescent-lit storefront a pleasant enough place to take advantage of their WiFi and full bar, but the engaging staff, and endless amounts of fresh, hot plates coming from the kitchen make it extraordinary.
2516-18 W. 63rd St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday, 11am-8pm. (773)776-7440