I’m unlikely to turn down a hot dog (especially if it’s smothered in spicy kimchi), but when it comes to street food, I’ll take a West Indian-style roti over a Nathan’s Famous any day. It might be on account of the the rich amalgamation of spices reflecting the dish’s diverse origins and including everything from saffron and cilantro to allspice and fiery scotch bonnet peppers. Or it could be the warm, stretchy unleavened flatbread that arrives elastic and buttery at one shop; flaky and dusted with turmeric at another. And let’s not forget the savory and juicy filling, offered in a variety of proteins and simmered so long that the vegetables dissolve under the slightest pressure and the meat practically faints from the bone. Or that it’s offered cheap, hot, and in abundance by countless shops lining the streets of Crown Heights and Flatbush. (For under $10, you can completely fill yourself with this one-plate meal.) It’s probably a combination of all of the above, and the fact that Caribbean cuisine, as an active product of cultural overlap, necessity, and hard-won survival, is so damn full of flavor.
It is for all of these reasons that I wanted to go on—and then share—this roti tour of Brooklyn. This list is by no means exhaustive. In selecting locations I went on the recommendations of local residents, online reviews, and chance. Although in some cases, there were several options for filling (Gloria’s boasted eleven), I stuck to either the curry, boneless, or stew chicken roti to provide a more nuanced comparison. What I discovered was that no two roti shops are alike. Although the menus may appear similar, a restaurant in the Trinidad and Tobago style will not only vastly differ from those deriving from Jamaica, Guyana, or St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but even from the Trini restaurant across the street. Whether you prefer your roti skins doubled over and soaked through with butter, or layered, dhalpuri-style, with a stuffing of ground split peas depends on your taste, but I recommend you try them all. Here’s a list of six places to get you started.
Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop
Here I opted for the stew chicken roti ($6), and boy was it was delicious. The chicken was bone-in, ultra-tender, and rich in the flavors of fresh thyme and hot peppers. The roti skin, made with no shortage of butter and shortening, was thick and browned, with a generous portion of boiled split peas blanketed between the layers. Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop is a family-run affair, with the same cook preparing the food for the last twenty years. They also offer a small selection of grocery items, consisting mostly of snacks and sauces.
1267 Fulton Street, Crown Heights
The Food Sermon Kitchen
This sleek and stylish restaurant takes a nontraditional approach to their roti. The chef and owner, Rawlston Williams, was trained at the French Culinary Institute, and is taking this West Indian staple in a new, healthier direction. The “mini roti,” ($6) as the menu calls it, is by no means tiny, and was presented with thick, fennel-accented roti skins served to the side of a bowl of soft, delicately flavored bone-in chicken. Yams were used in place of the traditional (pumpkin) and adapted (Idaho potato) starches, and added a pleasing sweetness to the dish. Bright yellow blossoms added visual pop to a dish which, though delicious, is traditionally almost uniform in color, and spicy-sweet tamarind sauce was offered as an accompaniment. The sorrel (a traditional West Indian beverage made from the Roselle plant) is also a must here.
355 Rogers Avenue, Crown Heights
Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine
Gloria’s offers eleven different roti fillings, ranging from curry goat and conch to tofu. In addition, roti skins can be served as a wrap or shredded to the side, in a style called the “buss-up shot” for its resemblance to a “bust-up shirt.” The roti skin, heavily seasoned with turmeric, was thin and flaky. However what started out dry became quickly drenched in the flavorful curry sauce that poured out from the first bite. This roti ($8) did not hold back on the curry flavor (a kindness I appreciate), so if you’re a fan of the strong and savory, Gloria’s is for you.
764 Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights
Trinidad Golden Place
Trinidad Golden Place offers food in the Trinidad-Chinese style. The key feature to the roti here ($8) is the inclusion of fresh whole spices. In each bite you’ll find sprigs of thyme and leaves of cilantro. I did not taste the presence of many powdered spices in this filling, the result being a soft and creamy stew with chicken as the most prominent flavor. The roti skin contained split peas between the layers, but other than a few sprigs of thyme, the thick, stretchy skin was not itself highly seasoned. All in all, this roti was very mild and comforting—a mythical made-by-grandma sort of dish
788 Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights
Bake & Things
The boneless chicken in this roti ($7.50) was extremely soft and flavorful, a feature often lacking in boneless chicken dishes. The roti skin was also moist and elastic, and made an excellent vehicle for sopping up the juices. I’m a big fan of cilantro, so the fact that this spice stood out above the rest was no problem for me. If you go here at four o’clock in the afternoon, as I did, be prepared to wait: The line extends out the door. Gauging from the familiar conversation exchanged between customers and staff, I gather they have a lot of return business. I might add that the callaloo, gently simmered with coconut milk, is also a must here.
1489 Flatbush Avenue, Flatbush
This stew chicken roti ($5) was unlike any others I’ve had. With strong notes of geera (cumin), hot peppers, and whole star anise, this stew had a sweet, earthy, and slightly tangy flavor. It was a combination of flavors I couldn’t quite deconstruct, despite prodding the owner-chef for answers. The roti skins, made with butter and boiled split peas in the dhalpuri-style, were light and fluffy. Tropical Twist took over the location of what was formerly Jen’s Roti Shop. While I never got a chance to try Jen’s roti, I suspect that Tropical Twist isn’t a bad replacement.
1081 Flatbush Avenue, Flatbush