Ordering a plate of chicken curry with roti at Lovey's Roti in Sunrise (8336 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Sunrise; call 954-741-9212) isn't a one-step process. As in many of the dozens of West Indian-style eateries scattered throughout West Broward, questions abound: "Roti or rice?" Or "Wrapped or on the side?" Or, quite simply, "Peppa?"
It's important that, no matter how much you fudge your answers, you get that last one right. "Peppa" refers to an ultraspicy purée of Scotch bonnet peppers that is omnipresent in one form or another in virtually every West Indian restaurant from here to Port of Spain. If you get the answer wrong — or at least wrong for you — you may end up with food so hot as to require a postmeal dip in the Atlantic just to quench the flames. That's not to say it isn't satisfying. On the contrary, adding "peppa" unilaterally to your duck curry or doubles or whatever you order is so damned tasty that you'll happily stretch the limits of your constitution just to get another fix.
I found Lovey's, a quaint little shop next to an Indian grocery on Oakland Park Boulevard, after looking to sate a roti craving of my own among Broward's many West Indian eateries — a category that's surprisingly large thanks to a huge population of immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
For the uninitiated, roti is an Indian-style flatbread that's either served alongside fragrant curry for dipping or rolled up into something resembling an overstuffed burrito. Both a staple and a utensil of sorts, roti is meant to be torn apart by hand and used to scoop, dip, and swipe through sauces, chutneys, and curries of all kinds.
Although cheap and tasty, roti isn't always easy. Ordering at a roti shop can be a bit like trying to order a value meal on Mars. At most joints, there isn't so much a menu as a scattering of handwritten papers taped to cash registers and countertops. Even then, most are full of colloquial terms and exotic phrases. To compound that, employees don't always do a fantastic job of answering questions for confused outsiders.
Fortunately, that's not the case at Lovey's. I brought a roti newbie with me the first time I went there, and with a little help from the cheery woman behind the counter, we managed to navigate the menu just like this: He ordered chicken curry with roti, wrapped up, and with peppa ($6.95). I got a plate of vegetarian curry (also called "straights") that included a cumin-heavy potato and chickpea mash called channa aloo and a bright-orange pumpkin curry that was sweet but not overly so (also $6.95). As we waited patiently at one of the white tables surrounded by plastic palm trees, we watched reggae videos blaring from a flat-screen TV hanging in the center of the room.
One thing I loved about Lovey's right away: At so many Caribbean restaurants around South Florida, food is held in metal steaming trays for seemingly infinite amounts of time. But at Lovey's, I could smell the doughy roti being baked to order. When it arrives at your table, the piping-hot flatbread comes bundled in a wax-paper package. Opening it is like tearing the wrapping off a present, you get so giddy with excitement.
My friend and I practically laughed out loud when we received our huge chicken curry roti blanketed with dhalpourie, a style of flatbread that's filled with grainy lentil and spices. The bundle of potato and curry was bigger than the plate and must have weighed a good two pounds on its own. As we tore open the dhalpourie wrapping, little flecks of yellow lentil scattered wildly across the table. It was messy fare, but the addition of the lentils mellowed the richness of the curry nicely (not to mention quelling the slow-blooming heat of the hot peppa).
If you want to skip the messy lentils, however, order your flatbread "buss up shut," a slang term for roti that's been griddle-cooked and shaped to look like a nest of paper-thin ribbons. Personally, I find that this "plain" roti works best for scooping up pieces of chicken or duck, especially since both types of curry are almost always served bone-in. Sada, which I got with my order of amazingly fresh vegetable curries, is thicker and heartier than the other two kinds — more like naan.
Aside from roti and curry, Lovey's does some fantastic Trinidadian-style street food. Doubles ($2), perhaps Trinidad's best-known export, are crazy popular as cheap, flavor-loaded street fare. Assembly is easy: Take two pieces of freshly fried bread, airy and light with big, yeasty bubbles, and sandwich them around an assortment of curried chickpeas, shredded cucumber, hot pepper, and kuchela, a sort of pickle-like chutney made from green mangoes. A spoonful of ultragarlicky kuchela is served with almost everything you order at Lovey's, but on the doubles, the strident flavors really shine.
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My favorite dish of them all was aloo pie ($2), another Trinidadian street food that's sort of like a potato sandwich, only made with a crispy, deep-fried bun. Sweet, tangy with kuchela, and starchy with potato, eating an aloo pie at Lovey's is like a flipping a greasy middle finger at Dr. Atkins. Say "yes" to the peppa, though, and your metabolism will be burning just as fast anyway.
Lovey's Roti is a one-stop shop for West Indian eats, but here are a couple more interesting roti spots to check out:
Lucky City (5574 W. Sample Road in Margate; call 954-972-1880): Chinese food is huge in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, owing to a large influx of Asian workers who came to the two countries as indentured servants in the mid-1900s. Lucky City, tucked away off Sample Road in Margate, masquerades as a normal Chinese restaurant but includes a number of interesting Guyanese specialties. "Chicken in de ruff" is a Guyanese party food that's basically thickly breaded, bone-in fried chicken spiked with a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce. Here, it's served over fried rice with plenty of shredded cabbage — a Guyanese friend of mine swears by the stuff. A typical West Indian menu with duck, chicken, goat, pork, and — yes — beef curry and roti is scrawled on a dry-erase board over the front register, which is often festooned with plastic containers full of Guyanese pastries such as flaky rolls filled with currants. The laid-back Caribbean vibe pervades to a fault, however. The restaurant's red booths and framed paintings of pastoral China look like they came with the place, and service is virtually nonexistent. When we asked for drinks, our waiter pointed toward a cooler near the back and told us to help ourselves. We did and ended up with mauby, a sweetened drink not unlike iced tea that's made with tree bark. You don't get much more authentic than that.
The Curry Hut (5416 W. Atlantic Blvd. in Margate; call 954-972-9201): The Curry Hut is an authentic island eatery featuring made-to-order roti, an assortment of great curries, and some interesting Caribbean-influenced Chinese food. The place is more homely than homey, with packages of spices, dried goods, and incense on display at the brick countertop up front and hand-stitched napkin caddies dressing up each table. On weekends, the place gets raucous as live chutney, reggae, and reggaeton blare through the huge loudspeakers positioned in the corners of the restaurant. A cold Dragon Stout from Jamaica and a plate of cilantro-flecked conch curry goes great in that atmosphere, especially when the housemade, neon-orange Scotch bonnet sauce is used liberally. Also on Saturdays and Sundays, the Curry Hut serves bake and fish, a fried bread sandwich made with shark, salt fish, or smoked herring. Daily specials top out at $8, making it a cheap place to party like a Trinidadian.