In 2016, Darryl Hicks shuttered the city’s first and only Trinidadian restaurant, Cafe Trinidad. It was a serious responsibility to stand as the sole representative of a Caribbean cuisine that synthesizes centuries of contributions from African, Indian, Indigenous, Creole, Syrian, Lebanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese cooks. And it wasn’t an easy decision to close. But after an 11-year run, his mom Claudia, the guiding light behind the operation, was spending increasing amounts of time back on the island, and Hicks himself was building a second business in hurricane-proof window shutters.
“It hurt me to have to close it down because there was nowhere else to get Trinidadian food,” he says. “But it was hard for me to do both.”
For a moment it seemed the Hicks family might be behind a Trini food boomlet when Claudia helped another son open Rogers Park’s Taste of Trinidad in 2015, but that didn’t last either.
During the pandemic a few windows on Trini cuisine opened here and there, with occasional menu drops from a south suburban roti specialist and pop-up appearances by Snackette member Trini Zaddy (Sauce Works), aka Nariba Shepherd, who’ll be collaborating on a Monday Night Foodball in December.
Roti are the burrito-like curry-and-stew-stuffed wraps ubiquitous to Trinidad and Tobago, and they’re not uncommon in most North American cities with sizable expat populations. Hicks thinks the people and the food wouldn’t be so scarce in Chicago if there were direct flights back home. Over the past five years he has had to satisfy his longings on business trips to South Florida.
“I was in Miami a lot,” he says. “I would have to travel to Fort Lauderdale to buy this huge amount of roti and doubles and I’d bring them to Chicago. I was doing that two to three times a month. It was killing me.”
Hicks decided to mount a delivery-pickup comeback this spring when he got a look at the South Loop Food Company ghost kitchen. “I said, ‘Now is the time. I have to do this.’” In August he opened Cafe Trinidad ToGo, with a menu focused on roti and a handful of sides, with options to Chipotle-ize the shrimp, salmon, chicken, and goat curries into bowl or taco form. A few of the original restaurant sides are in production too: plantains, cucumber chow, macaroni pie, rice and peas, and pholourie—savory fried flour fritters served with sweet and sour tamarind sauce.
There are also doubles, the iconic Trini street food: taco-sized deep fried bara flatbreads swaddling curried chickpeas. All orders come with the restaurant’s original fruity, razor sharp habanero sauce.
In Trinidad a variety of Indian-derived flatbreads are used to construct roti. Hicks and his mom, along with their two original cooks from 75th Street, roll out and griddle cumin-scented dhalpuri, with a dough formed from ground yellow split peas and flour. Folded around the gently warming halal chicken curry, or the bolder, darker goat curry (made with Slagel Family Farm caprids), these bulging protein pillows travel well to the lakefront, where they can play the starring role in a credible island daydream.
Hicks plans to reintroduce other old Cafe Trinidad favorites—oxtails and butter beans, curry crab and dumplings, maybe even mauby, the bitter, restorative cold infusion made from the bark of the carob tree—all with the eventual aim of reopening a south-side dine-in brick-and-mortar resurrecting the original’s soca-steeped Carnival vibe.
“We didn’t close because the business was bad,” says Hicks. “We’re back because of the culture. We’re still Trini.”