Nio's Trinidad Roti Shop & Bakery
First things first: do the opposite of me, and say it right: Nigh-yo! (not Neo.) The name in question refers to one Mr. Nio Badall who, about a quarter century back, left Trinidad to set up shop in East Flatbush. He and his fam began in a very small space – what is but a sliver of their present-day restaurant. Yet over time, word spread: real island flavor at reasonable prices. Folks flocked, and the Badalls expanded. More specifically, they tore down a wall and moved into the adjacent space (a former real estate office). Now they boast one of the area’s biggest dining rooms, a wide airy corner locale with green tables, airbrushed Caribbean frescoes, Carnival signs, and a giant ganja photo.Truth be told, the decor seems to induce subliminal urges: enter, relax, kick back... and feel yourself getting hungrier. Indeed. One step inside and we had the contact pangs, so we rolled straight to the counter to get some Trinidadian goodness.Alas, on that first visit there wasn't much to be had. This is because we arrived entirely too late after nearly everything had sold out: curries, stews, jerks, rotis... So we went with the flow and tried the only remaining option: a pair of meat pies ($1.25 each). They were buttery and flaky, far closer to a British Savory than a Hot Pocket. Chicken was tasty enough, but Beef – slightly sweet and spicy fresh-chopped meat – proved to be the money flavor.
There wasn't much else to sample, so we grabbed a large coco bake ($5) for consolation and headed home. Are you familiar? It's a low round loaf made with ground, dried coconut and baked to a rich, moist golden brown. Pair a toothsome, aromatic slice with some cheese or (our favorite) sweet butter and sausage. Or use it to cool down if you've eaten too much spicy food. And if you haven't tried it before, get with the program!
It took us a few jaunts, but eventually we learned: the early bird catches the roti. So we headed back during prime dining hours to sample Nio's more illustrious offerings. First up, traditional Trinidadian snack faves sahina and doubles. Sahina, a small spongy fritter made of ground yellow peas and leafy greens, went well with a splash of piquant hot sauce. But it was those wonderful doubles that flat-out wooed me. One bite and I was hooked on this veggie mini-hoagie, two pieces of bara (think: nice, chewy quick-fried West Indian rolls) stuffed with fragrant chickpea curry (channa). This sandwich (?) is sloppy, rich, fiery, filling and delicious. And something of an architectural feat: against all odds, the soft bara soaked up the spicy chana and attendant sauces, yet retained its shape. It also costs under two bucks, which makes me wish I had ordered a grip... but we had to save room. After all, Nio's is the house that Roti built, and a Shrimp Roti was waiting on our plate.
Just to remind you, good reader, Roti refers to a big round flatbread with a very thin layer of chopped yellow peas, stuffed with your choice of filling. They look like burritos, but come closer in spirit to those San Francisco “chowders-in-a-breadbowl”: the wrap is functional and edible! And yet, it's not the easiest dish to eat (or photograph, for that matter). For one thing, the filling is unwieldy. “Chicken” will get you giant chunks of curry, bones and all; ditto with the goat. But don't let this deter you; go with a flavor you like, exercise a modicum of patience, and your perseverance will be rewarded. I love the bread's texture and the subtle taste of dahl. It treads that fine line between light and sturdy, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of a mild, sweet and savory shrimp curry.But if that doesn't appeal, you can also order anything as a dinner plate. We went with two favorites, the curry goat and curry crab. The crab's flavor was rich and clean, but I was hoping for a bit more heat on those plump legs. On the other hand, restraint served the goat well. This is one of the most memorable we've come across in our travels: tender, meaty, and exceptionally well-cooked. Nio's also serves their curry goat much drier than the norm, (thankfully) steering clear of the standard “coconut milk soup” sauce. The result? Sumptuous chevon with just enough seasoning to enhance its natural flavor. (Just make sure to check all the bones. If you're lucky, you'll come across a pocket of drool-worthy herb-crusted marrow.)
It's not hard to tell why Nio's has prospered over the years. They're good people offering well-prepared food, great flavors, and diverse dishes at terrific prices. Which is why one recent Friday evening, they were still going strong after their purported 10pm closing time. Long after the mixtape man had packed up, folks came strolling by for whatever was left: red pepper prunes and pickled stew plums, cakes, bakes, breads, rolls and hops, a simple bag of peanuts or the final scoop of rice and peas. And house-made beverages like Mauby.
Not to be confused with that bald white vegan guy, mauby is a drink I initially mistook for tamarindo. One taste and you'll see it's anything but. Made from the boiled bark of the Colubrina elliptica (Soldierwood tree), this sweet viscous liquid is renowned for its digestif powers. The flavor is deep and bitter with a refreshing anise finish. And while the first few tastes were kinda rough, it quickly grew on us. So we ordered a second glass, let the bark work its magic, and pondered what to sample the next time around. Because, good reader, some questions are worth pursuing on your own, and at Nio's learning is delicious.
Nio's Trinidad Roti & Bakery
2702 Church Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
I'm still unclear on the hours, but if you want to try their best dishes, show up before 9pm. They usually wrap up around 10.
If you work with the Bulls & Bears, consider their Lower Manhattan lunch truck on Front St. between Wall St. & Maiden Lane. They also have a flavormobile serving breakfast at Nostrand & Newkirk in Brooklyn. And for reasons still unclear, they also have a restaurant in Bay Town, Texas. So there's really no excuse not to check Nio's out!