Above: Lolo’s (Photos by CJ and Joey Pasion)
By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
CJ Travel Editor
HARLEM — Reggae’s pumping from the speakers overhead, and I can’t help but nod my head to the beat as I chew on a slice of fried plantain. My tablemates are swigging Ting (the Jamaican grapefruit soda) to temper the heat as they tuck into bags of peppery shell-on shrimp.
A diverse crowd of diners – students, well-heeled middle-aged couples, tourists, and young parents with infants in tow – is focused on their own food, and perched on colorful metal stools pulled up to rough-hewn wooden tables.
It feels as if we’re somewhere the Caribbean, steps away from a sun-drenched beach.
But I’m thousands of miles away in Manhattan, where Lolo’s Seafood Shack is bringing island heat to a sun-starved city.
“We like to think of ourselves as Harlem’s own lolo,” says Leticia “Skai” Young-Mohan, referring to the much-loved casual restaurants that line the beach at Grand Case on St. Martin’s French side.
Skai and her Guyanese husband chef Raymond Mohan (formerly of Anguilla’s Straw Hat) opened their eatery last October with a goal of bringing Caribbean-inspired food to New York’s hungry masses.
And since then thrifty Columbia University students, wealthy Upper West Siders, and culinarily curious residents of the new condos that have sprung up in the gentrifying neighborhood have flocked to the diner for a taste.
Featuring fare described as a mash-up of flavors from of the Caribbean and Cape Cod, the menu includes favorites any Caribbean lover will recognize: the puffy and golden deep-fried disks of dough called bakes; fried plantain; Trinidad’s much-loved fried fish “bake and shark” sandwich; and Johnny cakes.
However, they’re served in inventive ways and prepared with unexpected ingredients. The jerk du jour is beef ribs, not the usual chicken or pork, and the “crabby dip” is made with gruyere cheese (and, I can report, satisfyingly crabby). Johnny cakes are laced with divinely decadent honey butter, and even the humble fried plantain gets an upgrade, topped with Mexican cotilla cheese and its own drizzle of honey butter. Jamaican-style peel-‘n-eat pepper shrimp is served in the traditional plastic bag but comes with a pair of plastic gloves to protect your hands from the pepper.
But the biggest (and most delightful) surprise on the menu turns out to be a side dish, the wok-seared cauliflower. Lolo’s was formerly a Chinese restaurant and the owners use the now well-seasoned original woks to flash fry the vegetable, transforming it into a truly delicious cruciferous creation with a pleasing char and a garlicky kick.
The only Caribbean element missing from a meal at Lolo’s? A frosty Red Stripe or Carib. But the restaurant hopes to have its liquor license by Memorial Day. By then customers should be able to enjoy the Shack’s now-hidden treasure: a rear garden perfect for soaking up the rays as you graze.
The sandy sweeps of the Caribbean are hundreds of miles from the gritty streets of Harlem. But Lolo’s transporting tropical fare makes them seem much closer.
Lolo’s is at 303 W 116th St, and opens during the week from 4pm to 10pm, and on weekends from noon to 10pm. lolosseafoodshack.com