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Roadside Barbecue: St. Martin Style
So, when I visited St. Martin's famous Village of Grand Case, which is universally known as "the culinary capital of the Caribbean", I was prepared for an onslaught of mouth-watering dining choices, and that's exactly what I got. While Grand Case is most famous for the many gourmand-friendly restaurants that line the charming, narrow streets of town (think foie gras and lobster tasting menus paired with fine French wines), it was the locally run outdoor barbecues or "lolos", with their sweet, smoky aromas billowing from makeshift metal grills that had me at hello.
And, I mean literally at hello. After a rather stressful and lengthy travel day complete with a four hour delay in Philly via US Airways my husband and I checked into the the Grand Case Beach Club. Within minutes, starving and thirsty, we were back out the door, making the short walk into town when we were overcome with the fragrance of smoked meat. "Oh God," I said, "I smell barbecue," as we rounded the corner. And, there they were under a canopy of smoke-- a cluster of outdoor eateries merely steps from the beach serving grilled meats, seafood and plenty of cold beer. We had arrived.
Each of these individual establishments boasted its own whimsical name such as "Talk of the Town" and "Sky's the Limit", and they were all packed to the gills with a mixture of locals and tourists noshing on oversized plates of barbecue chicken, ribs, whole fried fish, and grilled Caribbean lobster accented with sides of rice of peas, plantains and fried Johnny Cakes (a type of deep fried dough with just a hint of sweetness). The atmosphere was convivial and conversational as diners ate casually at picnic tables complete with plastic cups and plates. Waves lapped the nearby beach while Bob Marley tunes echoed from somewhere in the distance.
We started our evening at "Sky's the Limit" following the age-old travel rule of hitting the restaurant boasting the largest crowd. It was not to disappoint. After being seated at our picnic table, one of the owners, a very pregnant young lady, handed us two plastic-coated menus with the phrase, "€ 1 to $ 1" emblazoned at the top, meaning they do one dollar to one euro equally, something vacationers should look for when traveling to French St. Martin, since while both dollars and euros are accepted widely, their conversion rates can vary.
Menu choices were straight and to the point, and boasted a la carte items described simply as "grilled chicken leg" and "Creole conch". Combo platters abounded, which at Sky's the Limit, came with a ginormous serving of six different sides: potato salad, mac and cheese, peas and rice, cole slaw, plantains and spaghetti (which seemed an odd pairing at first, but miraculously managed to complement the meal perfectly). Not being able to decide from the extensive menu, I had to default to the experts and ask our server what her favorite dish was, "Oh, you must try the garlic shrimp" she offered with a bona fide smile.
A couple of ice-cold Presidente beers later (which go for a whopping $1 each), my immensely-sized shrimp platter, which was more suited for a competitive eater, arrived along with hubby's grilled rib platter. The price point for all this food? Twelve dollars and nine dollars, respectively.
The shrimp were expertly cooked and redolent with garlic and spice. A couple extra dashes of hot sauce sealed their perfection. Hubby's ribs were all they were cracked up to be-- tender and fall-off-the-bone. Interestingly, the ribs came sans barbecue sauce (as most of the barbecue items do) in favor of a simple marinade and rub, which tasted scarcely of citrus and cumin. An array of sauces are offered on each table for diners to add at will.
As I wiped my face and hands, I glanced over at the grill, which was being manned by a woman, who was clearly at home overseeing her fire. It was then I noticed that all of the grills, many that were fashioned out of oil barrels cut in half, were being overseen by women. In fact, out of all six lolos (which refers to the grill itself and not the restaurant by the way) every single grill master was a woman-- one who spends each day and night on her feet, sweating over hot coals to churn out some of the best barbecue this Southern girl has ever tasted. It was an odd yet beautiful sight to see these ladies flipping slabs of meat and fish as well as any male pitmaster south of the Mason Dixon line.
Next day at lunch, we were back at the lolos for an afternoon of $1 Caribs,and to this time, sample some local seafood. Lunch began with boudin blanc made with fresh conch, a definite nod to the French influences that abound in the area. Next up, was a whole grilled snapper topped with pickled onions and peppers served with a mound of dirty rice and peas (kidney beans). Hubby had the grilled chicken platter, which like the ribs was flawlessly tender and juicy.
As we sipped our beers while watching a handful of local children jumping off a nearby pier into the crystalline waters of Grand Case Bay, I couldn't help but think how at home I felt. Perhaps it was the familiar smoke billowing from the grills that reminded me of down-home pig pickin's and barbecue's back in my native Virginia or maybe it was the way our host beamed with familial pride as she moved back and forth from our table to the grill, serving as both waitress and master chef. Whatever it was, it felt like home, and set the tone for the remainder of our experience in St. Martin, a small yet mighty island on the Caribbean culinary map.
Stay tuned for St. Martin deliciousness....