I met Bob MacDonald last week for lunch at Marla’s. It’s a restaurant that Bob has wanted to take me to for years, a place I have had on my list for a long time and just hadn’t gotten around to visiting. I soon realized I’ve been missing out. If you haven’t been to Marla’s, you’re depriving yourself of some of the best cooking in the Twin Cities—I was floored.
Located at the corner of 38th and Bloomington just south of Powderhorn Park, Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine is justifiably famous for its incredibly fresh, spicy, flavorful, from scratch, honest and delicious Pan-Caribe style food. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Marla (yes, the Marla is always cooking in the kitchen) is a doyenne of jerk, bringing scotch bonnet spice to the Northern Prairie extremes where freshly ground black pepper is often the spiciest item in the cupboard. She’s perfected that Caribbean mashup of Indian, Creole, and Latin flavors that are hard to come by in Minneapolis. All her food is available in a wide range of spice levels, from mild to “Indian hot” and the extreme “Marla’s hot.” If you go for that one, be prepared for serious heat. There are more mix-and-match and menu combos than I can keep track of, be sure to flip the menu over.
Here are some of the dishes I love:
Stewed brown down oxtails: sweet beefy braise of Caribe grandmother food. Don’t miss this winner.
Doubles with curried garbanzo beans: My favorite island-style street food. Marla’s version of these little bread/crepe fold-overs are the best ‘cheap-eat’ I can think of. Amazing value for great food.
Jamaican Jerk wings: Fried and then glossed with a sauce so superbly piquant that when the wings are cleared from the plate I eat the sauce with a spoon. Seriously.
Channa and potato Caribbean curry: I scoop this golden curry up with as much roti as I can and sprinkle it with lime and house-made hot sauce . . . and you can make it a meal if you are so inclined.
Jerk Chicken: Delightful, hot and herby—just how I like it.
Goat curry: Superbly crafted. Not greasy, not tough, not too much barnyard.
Dhalpourie roti: A flatbread filled with ground split peas. I ate two and took three home with me. Enough said. Well, almost . . . you can ask for goat, shrimp, chicken, or other meats to be on yours if you like. Huge win.
Red beans and rice: The best version in town. Both elements perfectly cooked, which is harder than it appears. Go ahead and try it yourself if you don’t believe me. Marla’s beans and rice are beautifully seasoned too. Salt works miracles when used the right way, I wish more cooks understood that.
Fried plantains: Sweet, caramelized perfection. I ate two orders. Truth.
Sorrel: My favorite drink with spicy food. Marla’s version of the sweet ginger/hibiscus punch is superb.
Peanut Punch: Filling and absurdly good if you have a taste for it. This is the stuff that Islanders always tell me is the prime source of all their energy. It's fun to taste and share. You might adore it.
Sweet Potato Pie: Gloriously homemade. Superb sweet potato reverence without relying on too much nutmeg for its flavor platform.
From the front of the house to the back, it’s a family-run operation, where everyone pitches in with a smile on their face. The friendly staff, kitschy Caribbean décor (fake palm trees, plastic crocodiles, Jamaican flags) and home-cooked specialties give off an island vibe that I’ll gladly soak up during the dreary Minnesota winter. With only a few dozen seats, the restaurant can get packed at prime time for lunch, and take-out is a nice option if you’re pressed on time.