Caribbean, meet Manhattan Beach [restaurant review]
Mia’s Kitchen brings Trinidadian flavors to the South Bay
There’s a common cliché about the cranky old person trying to explain how awful things were when they were young. An example for someone who appreciates good restaurants might be to say, “In my youth, Manhattan Beach had two Chinese restaurants, one Mexican place, and everything else was a diner, bar & grill, or steakhouse.” That level of cultural deprivation is unimaginable to someone who grew up in the multicultural dining destination we are now.
The latest addition to the world of dining choices is by far the most interesting in recent memory. Mia’s Cafe popped up in the former Sando’s space on Rosecrans, serving food from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The cuisine has been shaped by Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonialism, as well as large populations of slaves and workers from Africa, Eastern India, and Colombia. Very few Trinis, as the population is known, moved to California, so this cuisine is a rarity even in cosmopolitan neighborhoods.
Mia’s is a labor of love by Lisa Salinas, who named the restaurant after her mother Euphemia, nicknamed Mia. The restaurant opened in July of this year with a small menu that has steadily expanded, encompassing a few items from the French West Indies along with traditional Trini favorites. It’s a small place that was take-out only even before the pandemic made that mandatory, but some big flavors are coming out of that little kitchen.
The Indian influence is front and center in many items, including “Doubles,” a pair of tortilla-sized flatbreads called bara stuffed with mild vegetarian curry. The bread contains turmeric and cumin so it has its own flavor to accent the filling of curried chickpeas (garbanzos) along with mango chutney, cucumber, and fresh herbs. Doubles can be ordered mild or spicy and you can ask for the hot sauce on the side, which I recommend because they take their spicy seriously here.
The chicken or vegetarian curry-stuffed roti is another sandwich variant, a plain whole wheat flatbread stuffed with curry. Just imagine a burrito stuffed with mild, fragrant curry in a thick, flaky whole wheat tortilla, and you’re there. Just about every street food cuisine in the world has something involving a flatbread full of a thick stew because it’s a great idea, and this one is particularly delightful.
If you’re in the market for a full dinner rather than snacks, start with orders of the fruit chow and the cucumber and tomato chow. Chows are salads made with either fruit or vegetables, seasoned with salt, garlic, lemon, and pepper – lots of pepper, so don’t say you weren’t warned. If you never considered adding pepper and garlic to a mix of chopped pineapple and mango, you’re not alone, but the spicy kick with the cooling fruit is a remarkable effect. When I had it at home I added a little yogurt to cool it down, which probably isn’t something anybody in Trinidad would do, but it works.
Among the dinner items are chicken pelau and geera pork, the former fairly similar to the Indian traditional rice pilaf, the latter a very spicy item that is part of the drinking culture in the islands. I can easily imagine it – a bite of very spicy cumin-laced stew, followed by a drink of rum punch – repeat until both are gone, you are sweating, and the floor seems to be moving unpredictably. The pork stew comes with white rice and a lightly seasoned cabbage and carrot mix, so if you’re not drinking rum punch you can cool down with bites of those.
Mia’s offers two weekend-only specials that sometimes sell out days in advance, but on one visit I managed to snag an order of goat curry. The goat meat is bone-in, as is the case almost everywhere since goats don’t have a thick cut like a tenderloin or sirloin. The advantage is that by stewing the meat slowly you get the extra flavor of the marrow and bone broth, the disadvantage is that you have to eat around the bones slowly and carefully. Or maybe that’s an advantage too, because you shouldn’t rush the experience of savoring this thick, intense stew and licking every drop from your fingers. You can identify the ginger, coriander, cumin, and other herbs with a gentle overlay of Scotch bonnet pepper, but other elements of this sauce can only be guessed at. Your patience will be amply rewarded, and you can deal with the curry stains on your tablecloth and shirt later.
Mia’s has a kids’ menu too, and I’d recommend that you order from it even if there are no youngsters around. The macaroni pie is a baked mac and cheese casserole made with a three-cheese blend that includes gouda, and it’s a great antidote if some of the spicy dishes are making the inside of your mouth a bit hectic. The other item on that menu is mango barbecue chicken legs that have just a hint of spiciness in a classic barbecue sauce. The sauce is caramelized during the time on the grill for a classic sweet and spicy combination.
There’s only one dessert on the regular menu, a rolled pastry made with currants, cinnamon, and sugar, and it’s worth having – have some good quality vanilla ice cream on hand, because it’s a natural pairing. For the Christmas season they’re also making the famous “black cake,” a rum-laced fruitcake that takes three days to make and is available by special order only. I can’t report on what that’s like because the one I ordered won’t be ready for a few days, but after trying the other items here, I can hardly wait.
The prices are remarkably low – a sumptuous dinner for three ran less than $50, and there wasn’t a dud item in the bunch. Mia’s is a superb addition to our culinary culture, and a reminder that for all the things that went wrong in 2020, there were bright spots that will improve things in the long run.
Mia’s Kitchen is at 312 Rosecrans Ave., Manhattan Beach. Open Tues. 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Wed. — Sun. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. (sometimes closes early when everything sells out). Street parking. Take-out only. No alcohol. (310) 546-1044. miaskitchen.info. ER
by Richard Foss