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Garifuna Star -- World's rarest cuisine comes to South Bronx

Sometime in the early 17th century, a ship transporting captured Africans to a life of slavery foundered off the coast of Central America. That was the Africans' lucky day. They managed to swim to shore. They built villages, intermarried with the local Carib Indians, and eventually evolved a distinctive culture, mostly African but with some native American elements too. Isolated and reclusive, they stayed in their remote coastal villages. Until not so long ago, if you wanted to sample their cuisine, that's where you had to go, hitching a ride on one of the rickety freighters that ply the Mosquito Coast.

At some point, a few of these villagers (now called Garifuni) left their native Honduras and settled in the South Bronx. True to their rebel roots, they got jobs and led the fight to organize trade unions in their fields of work. But until last year, there were no Garifuni restaurants. Now there is one. And so, instead of a freighter like the ones Joseph Conrad sailed on, you can take a subway to eat Garifuni food.

Garifuni Star is a small restaurant, but the whitewashed walls make it seem far larger. On a late Sunday afternoon it was crowded with families eating, and some men who came to drink and watch TV. I ordered something called Machuca. It was $15 and there was a very long wait... not made any easier by my having to hear exclamations such as "this is the best food I ever ate!!" from the happy diners. Finally, the chef herself emerged proudly carrying my meal. It came in three big plates; I had got my money's worth.

The first plate held a whole pan-fried red snapper. The second bowl held a soup with 4 big shrimp at the bottom. The third plate had the machuca. Machuca, I learned, is a pounded paste made out of boiled plaintains. Like fufu, I told the chef. Yes, she agreed. And then I remembered, and told her, that in Uganda they have a very similar dish called with a very similar name, matoke. Coincidence? I don't know. In any event the machuca was pure African.

But the soup was the star of the show. It was rich and golden, and made with coconut and spices. It tasted very much like a Thai curry. It was wonderful. You either ate the soup plain or you took some machuca on a big spoon and then dipped it in the soup. In Africa, I said, they use their hand to make a ball of the machuca. The chef thought that was a bit uncouth. So I used the spoon.

A wonderful meal. True fusion cuisine. If I had sailed for weeks on a steamer, and then got that meal, I wouldn't have been disappointed.

Garifuna Star
640 Prospect Av
Bronx, NY
(note that the correct name is not on awning, they still use the former occupant's awning)
(718) 401-2815
Nearest subway: 149 Street stop of the number 6 train

for more on the Garifuni, see http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/afburns...

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  1. Brian...
    If you are not a Restaurant Reviewer by trade, I think you should seriously consider looking into it. Your comments/opinions are always so carefully detailed and you find and share the most interesting places...
    Thank you for this very colorfully worded and historically informative posting.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Tay

      Thank you so very much.Praise is a writer's best (and often only) reward. I'm glad my Garifuna outing worked out, I've been planning it ever since I learned about this new restaurant ... on this very board!

    2. Brian -- You have made my week! My boyfriend 1) loves anything that has to do with fufu, and 2) hates driving to Manhattan (we live in the Bronx). I now have another weeknight destination to try! Thank you!

      1 Reply
      1. re: merrymc

        I'm really glad. I was going to tell you about Aziza... but I realize that you already know about it. (I got the info from your posts.) There are a lot of restaurants that serve fufu in the Bronx. Also Florence's in Harlem... easy drive from the Bronx... has great Ghanaian food.

      2. A few more points I forgot:

        1) Make sure you take the six train. The 4 and 5 stop is miles away.

        2) The thing the soup reminds me of most is the Brazilian moqueca de camarao. Not surprising, since that dish came from Bahia, where the cooking is heavily influenced by African cuisine.

        3) The Garifuni originally came to shore on St Vincent Island. When the British occupied that island, they fought them for almost 30 years. Defeated, they were deported to what is now Honduras. (60% of them died during that period.)

        4) They speak their own language. I heard a language I couldn't identify at the restaurant, maybe it was that. The friendly service people (one cook, one waitress) are fluent in English, more fluent than they are in Spanish, which they also speak.

        8 Replies
        1. re: Brian S

          I think Garifuna people speak a Creole language. I visited a few Garifuna towns in Guatemala and Honduras, and found that the people speak excellent, native-speaker-level English. Maybe it's because of proximity to Belize? Or because of tourism on the islands off Honduras? Or maybe because runaway slaves from Jamaica or other English-speaking colonies fled there in previous generations? Or perhaps from fighting the Bristish. Interesting.

          Anyway, thanks for reporting on this great restaurant find. I'll have to check it out.

          1. re: nerdgoggles

            Ive met someGarifuna Belizeans at my church in Brooklyn - they speak english and spanish, in addition to their garifuna language.- havent yet seen really distinct dishes from those the other belizeans cook, however.
            Language is arawak, not creole http://www.cariblanguage.org/garifuna...

            1. re: jen kalb

              Yes, my father lives in a Garifuna village in Belize, and the food in the village isn't any different than the other Belizean food (stew chicken, stew fish). There's a definite African feeling in some other respects but I didn't see it in this one. I wonder if different communities evolved food differently? Or different families?

              1. re: mary shaposhnik

                I've read of a Belizean stew called seré that has coconut milk and is similar to a Garifuna dish. But they could have got it from the Garifuna!. That whole Atlantic coast is full of African influence, including culinary. I think a lot of Belizean food is not like that... it's ordinary stews, rice and beans etc.

                1. re: mary shaposhnik

                  I'll ask my lady friends if they make any of these dishes. Maybe they make them and just dont bring them to church (stuff like taro pudding or tamales are more practical and inexpensive than fish or conch soup) There is so much mixing and sharing of food ideas around the caribbean basin (and mostly common ingredients, so its often hard to see where the ideas come from.

                  Putting coconut milk or oil into dishes for example. Its not always done, and I suspect there are "plain" and "fancy" versions of things like rice and peas. One of my friends, recently back from Jamaica, made callaloo, as she always dones, for a monthly event - this time it was stellar - she had made it with coconut oil purchased from a coconut board down thee.
                  Where does your father live? The people I know best come from Dangriga, which they describe lovingly.

              2. re: nerdgoggles

                Creole? oh my god, of course not. 100, 000 of the garifuna people speak garifuna, their own language, which derives from the inyeri language. they are also fluent in english and the speak some spanish. but garifuna does not qualify as a creole language, no way!

                1. re: nerdgoggles

                  English influence is much older there. The eastern coast of much of Central America provided hideouts for (British and Dutch) buccaneers centuries ago. Eastern Nicaragua and part of the coast of southern Honduras was from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries a British protectorate — the Miskito Coast (named for the majority Miskito Indians). People from that area of Nicaragua also speak more English than Spanish, and the towns have names like Bluefields.

                2. re: Brian S

                  The Jackson Ave stop is not that far away. The 2 and 5 stop there. Note that during rush hours, the 5 train run express in peak direction and skip Jackson Ave.

                3. Wow. This one goes to the top of my queue.

                  1. Brian, how do you know everything? How did you even find out about this place?

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: janethepain

                      Sometime around 1992, I started exploring different neighborhoods. I made some friends in the South Bronx and used to hang out there. It was quite pleasant in those days, some of the little shops used to hire bands to play outside on weekends. One day, walking near St Mary's park, I saw a festival with food stands with incredible food Someone told me the people were Garifuna. I looked it up in the library. So I learned about Garifuna but I never could find that food again... until two weeks ago someone wrote on this board that there was a stand selling enchiladas on the same block as the Garifuna social club. I love Garifuna food, I replied, is there a Garifuna social club? Yes, and there's even a Garifuni restaurant, the poster answered, though he hadn't tried it yet. So I rushed to try it..

                      So, short answer, I learned about the restaurant on this board!

                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/42641...

                      1. re: janethepain

                        Brian knows pretty much everything about pretty much every type of food...
                        It's a tad scary but waaaay cool that one person knows so much about so many different trpes of cuisine. :-}

                        1. re: Tay

                          I think he knows everything about everything.

                          1. re: janethepain

                            Don't be too surprised when Brian starts a thread entitled
                            "The Best of the 6 Train". Heck, he's already done 149th St. Most people wouldn't set foot in some of those neighborhoods, but not Brian.
                            He's Chowhounds man of armor with a cast iron stomach. Kudos !!!

                            1. re: Cheese Boy

                              Your praise made my day. If I did a guide to 149 street, it would start wtih Glackens Bar... a South Bronx holdout run by the grandkids of Irish immigrant Mike Glackens, who founded the bar 70 years ago. All sorts of people go there.

                              As you hint, I wouldn't go to Garifuna Star's neighborhood late at night. I went in the late afternoon.

                              1. re: Brian S

                                brian nice review -- i often work around there and have seen the place, but not gone in.

                                next visit you might like to try LA ORQUIDIA too, a hounduran restuarant on 149th/brook near the hub, where we get lunch sometimes.

                                also, just north of GARIFUNA STAR on prospect just below westchester (prospect 2/5 stop) is my fav jamaican restaurant KAYLAH'S HUT where i'm a regular for lunch. if you see the grill barrel going out front, you know what to order!

                                1. re: mrnyc

                                  Mrnyc, any other good eats around there ?

                                  Tried any of these at all ---> http://www.urbanspoon.com/nr/3/31397/...

                                  1. re: mrnyc

                                    Thanks for these tips! I have heard of .La Orquídea but have never managed to go there. I never heard of Kaylah's Hut... have to check it out! Near Garifuna Star on 149 is Venice, if you are in the area and crave Italian red sauce.

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                                    Garifuna Star
                                    640 Prospect Ave, Bronx, NY 10455