Being a grad student foodie means two things: 1. you’re always on a tight budget, 2. you have to make the most of every chance you get to eat out. Ultrahigh end restaurants are certainly off limit. Popular chains, no matter how tasty, are unbloggable and reserved for rare occasions when the cravings go mad. The more popular types of food, like pastas and sandwiches, would require a lot more skill and creativity to pen down, hence also preferably avoided. What’s left are the locally owned kitchens with ten or fifteen tables, one or two waiters, and something off the beaten path. It could be a strange item on the menu, or the lack of menu, an interesting name, a worn sign, a long line, an always-closed wooden door…
For me, it’s the type of cuisine. If I haven’t had it, I’d insist on getting it, predictably with numerous disappointing turnouts. The thrill of trying new stuff aside, it’s something to brag about, you know. “I’ve had Azerbaijan” somehow just sounds cool. Childish, I know, but every new bite feels like a little culture seeping into the brain, and I feel learned after each meal regardless of the result.
I’d prefer the romantic approach of driving down the road and pull into just whatever catches the eyes, but Google Map is lovely, too. That’s how we find Mango Caribbean. Mudpie likes mango. I haven’t had Jamaican food, or any idea of what authentic Jamaican food should be. It just sounds fun.
The lunch starts with fried plantain, length-wise sliced and burnt in vegetable oil, gummy at parts and porous at others. The natural sweetness goes hand in hand with the oil’s simplicity. The starfish arrangement matches a fishing net theme hanging low across the room.
You know it’s not Americanized when the door is opened, the restaurant is completely empty except for the sound of rustic knives hammering on chopping boards, and a heavily accented host asking you to come back in another half hour because the other host isn’t there for opening. There is that feel of the restaurateur’s confidence, justified or not, of serving good food on unpolished tables, with unpolished service, and in unpolished plastic plates.
The food arrives in free style just like the restaurant’s ambiance. We order a Breezy Caribbean wrap and a Mango Walk wrap. Little thin squares of roti (a misnomer?) come on one plate, meat, salad, and small cups of condiments neatly arranged on another, ready to be mixed. The sauteed shrimps land a bit too light, but its accompanying mango chutney has bits of jewel. It looks like topaz, and tastes like spring. At first sight, the mango chicken falls short of expectation, as it’s nothing more than roasted chicken with two scrawny mango sticks. But the chicken kicks a three letter word. Each tender strand is a malty flow slowly wetting the taste buds. It feels more braised than roasted, but braised with what I know not. My favorite, though, is the purplish pile of red beans and rice. The nutty coating makes the grains stand out one by one, so the rice is no longer a base, but a dish of complexity.
Address: Mango Caribbean
435 Hamilton Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
So how do you pick which restaurant to go to and blog about? Do you google? Citysearch? Yelp? Ask friends? Do you just go and see what sign looks good? What would make you pick one restaurant over others?
Other Palo Alto restaurants:
- Garden Fresh (Chinese, vegan)
- Shokolaat (the higher end)
- Crepes Cafe
- Blue Danube Cafe (chocolate and those tooth-aching stuff)
- Nola (Cajun)
- Phở Vỉ Hoa (Vietnamese)
- Cafe Renaissance (Persian)