Fafa From Paradise
It stands to reason that if you have a craving for barbecued ribs, you should seek out a joint that specializes in rib preparation. If you have a yen for some really fresh shrimp, stop in at a seafood shack. If you seek a high-quality steak, going to a steak house would be the obvious route to follow.
Of course, logic doesn't often have much to do with dining, which is a good thing for those of us who don't like to march along the expected course (or those of us who are, say, irrational). That's why Taro's Tahitian Barbecue, a strip-mall eatery in Coral Springs, is such a refreshing find. At this 25-seat place, you can satisfy just about any of the above food predilections. But you can do it in a way that's ethnically informed without being threatening, a tremendous plus for a tame South Floridian.
In short Taro's is a barbecue hut, where the glazed pork ribs are so excruciatingly tender that, when you pick up the end of the bone, the meat falls off and stays behind on the plate. Where shredded pork is steeped in a tangy, addictive barbecue sauce, then mounded next to fragrant scoops of white rice. Where rib eye steak, a bargain at $13.95, is simply grilled, then brushed with Tahiti sauce. (This is essentially the same as the barbecue sauce but not so bright in flavor, as a result of the grilled beef's juices mingling in.)
But Taro's is also an education in a national cuisine that is virtually unknown here, thanks to chef-proprietor Darroll Tekurio and his partner and wife, Linda, who runs the front of the house. Though the restaurant is modest, with only a freestanding, self-contained waterfall; South Seaspatterned cloths on the tables; and a few artifacts on the walls that could suggest almost any tropical island, a display case of black pearls bespeaks Taro's specific Tahitian heritage. As does the menu, which provides a glossary explaining the more exotic-sounding Tahitian dishes.
Don't fret if you don't feel like putting in the extra effort to study the definitions of the menu items. Though Taro's has been open a good six months, it's still in discovery mode, and new customers come in every day. Plus the place is small enough so that the staff, namely Linda, remembers regulars easily. Thus she can identify first-timers and treat them to some quick, informative patter regarding the home-style Tahitian cuisine (and even some personal history, like the fact that her husband was the first in his Tahitian family to be born in a hospital). Then she'll bring out a basket of warm ipo, hand-molded flour dumplings studded with fresh coconut. "Eat these with your fingers," she'll instruct you. If you're curious -- or suspicious -- she'll even give you a demonstration on how the coconut, which is pliable and mellow as opposed to scratchy and overpowering, is grated.
Take advantage of the ipo, because appetizers are not offered here. They don't really need to be, since each entrée is preceded by a house salad comprising iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, three-bean salad, pepperoncini, and a beautifully balanced, homemade orange vinaigrette. Main courses also come with two side dishes, which run the gamut from French fries to fafa, a richly enticing mixture of spinach and small pieces of chicken that has been baked with coconut milk.
If you're really hungry, you can order combination platters. The combos offer two main courses on one plate, such as barbecued ribs and shrimp vetea (medium-size shrimp sautéed with lots of sweet white onions), plus the two side dishes. Though the combos may sound pricey for a budget eatery, be aware that servings are generous. The half-rack of ribs was partnered by a casserole dish filled with shrimp.
On the other hand, if you're truly interested in sampling as much authenticity as possible, try the Tahiti platters, which come with every Tahitian side dish on the menu. The shredded-pork platter we ordered was surrounded by ramekins of fafa, poisson cru, poe, and salade Russe. The poisson cru will probably be the most familiar to South Floridians, since it is very similar to ceviche. The mahi-mahi had been cubed and then marinated, or "cooked," in lime juice. The cured fish was then mixed with diced onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers -- essentially gazpacho ingredients -- and served chilled. Very invigorating stuff.
Poe was more on the soothing side -- roasted bananas mixed with tapioca and splashed with coconut milk. You might want to save this for dessert. Salade Russe was a hearty partner for a dinner of barbecued ribs or the poulet roti, chicken roasted with soy sauce and garlic. Basically it's very good potato salad, with diced beets and peas thrown in to lend flavor, color, and texture.
For green veggies, head for the coconut-curry chicken, a serene stew of white-meat chicken, green peppers, broccoli, and onions. Unlike Thai, Indian, or Malaysian curries, this one didn't utilize the heat of chili peppers, but it certainly didn't lack savor. If you're looking for a less complex dish, ask about the fish of the day, which could be grilled mahi-mahi, tilapia, or local snapper.
Desserts, like appetizers, are virtually nonexistent. But a fruit plate side dish fills in nicely, especially since the cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon served at Taro's were summer-ripe. The kitchen added a scoop of ice cream to make this a heftier sweet than we'd expected, but for $2.95, who's gonna complain? Indeed, it's tough to lodge any gripe against Taro's Tahitian Barbecue, one of the few places in recent memory to solidly fulfill, rather than evade, its purpose: to woo diners with both the familiar and the exotic, all in an atmosphere that can be described only as convivial.
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