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Church Ave. Chow Hunt (long post on a few places)

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Church Ave. Chow Hunt (long post on a few places)

Opportunivore | May 18, 2004 09:45 AM

This Sunday I spent some time checking out West Indian chow spots on Church and Flatbush Avenues, both those that others (especially Brooklyn Boy) have recommended and those that I happened on.

My first stop was Veggie Castle (2242 Church btw Flatbush and Bedford). Having enjoyed Imhotep (734 Nostrand) and D’Ital Shack (989 Nostrand), two other West Indian vegan restaurants, I was eager to see how Veggie Castle compared. VC offers a wider selection than either of the others. The restaurant has a long steam table with at least eight grain, bean and vegetable dishes including steamed and curried vegetable mixes, rice and peas, yellow rice, and curried dishes; and about as many soy dishes, such as soy chunks in barbecue sauce, curried tofu, jerk tofu, and veggie fish. All the vegetables were brightly colored (not limp or tired-looking) and the soy protein dishes appeared fresh and hot. Veggie Castle also sells a variety of fresh juices; whole-wheat rotis with veggie fillings; veggie burgers; patties (vegetable, callaloo, soy); breads; and vegan desserts.

I ordered a plate with rice and peas, baked macaroni with soy cheese, soy chunks in barbecue sauce, and jerk tofu. This was more than I wanted to eat in one sitting, especially with other stuff waiting elsewhere, so I stuck to the macaroni and BBQ soy. The BBQ soy chunks were great, with a firm meaty texture and a smoky, spicy sauce that was sweeter than most but still good. The macaroni and soy cheese was comically awful. I hesitate to blame the cook for this, for while the macaroni was cooked perfectly, the soy cheese probably would have been bad in any dish. Having never tried it before, I was sorely disappointed: the stuff is utterly bland, with the consistency of dried rubber cement. Mixing the macaroni with the BBQ sauce made it edible, but I regretted ordering it and not one of the many other tasty-looking dishes.

After finishing half my plate, I got a mini soy patty, basically a half-size patty baked in a tiny pie plate. This was wonderful, with a crisp crust and meaty soy chunks. Like their peers at Imhotep and D’Ital Shack, the cooks at Veggie Castle are wizards with soy meat.

(Later in the evening, I had the jerk tofu and rice and peas. Both were outstanding. The spice rub on the jerk tofu was hot but with strong notes of cumin, coriander, thyme, and other spices, and the tofu had been baked to a solid, toothy texture. I liked it more than the BBQ soy. The rice and peas were done perfectly, with a mellow, herby flavor.)

From Veggie Castle I headed east down Church. About half a block away I found Strictly Vegetarian, another steam-table joint. Inside was another dizzying array of stewed and baked vegetables, grains, and soy meats. Strictly Vegetarian had no tables, just a few stools and a counter in the window, so take-out would be a better option.

Farther east, on the north side of Church, I came upon Four Seasons Bakery and Restaurant. I’m a pushover for sweet, heavy West Indian desserts like cassava pone and bread pudding, so I went in. Four Seasons had a steam table with fewer and less fresh-looking stews and sides than Veggie Castle or Strictly Vegetarian. But the selection of desserts set this place apart from other West Indian bakeries I’ve visited. Besides the sugar bombs I was after, Four Seasons sold whole-wheat versions of the fruit rolls (long, flat loaves of dough layered with currants, cherries, coconut, or other stuff) and tarts (triangles of dough with similar fillings) common at West Indian bakeries. In the back, I saw a worker take from an oven a tray of patties, with both whole-wheat and the usual yellow crusts. The menu listed many vegetarian fillings. Finally, there were breads and rolls made with both refined and whole wheat flours. I left with a big piece of cassava pone and a hearty slice of currant roll. I tried the currant roll first and found it delicious. The dough itself wasn’t sweet, but the generous layers of soft currants were sweet enough to balance the earthy wheat. Between the currants and the whole-wheat dough, this was a dense item. (The cassava pone, which I tried that night, was very good, with a molasses flavor I couldn’t recall tasting in other versions I’ve tried.)

After finishing the currant roll, I no longer felt like looking at food, so I abandoned my search and walked back Flatbush and north on Parkside Ave. to Prospect Park. (Nothing caught my eye on Flatbush between Church and Parkside, but I wasn’t looking hard.) Just north of the Parkside Ave. gate, I found a lively drum circle in a spot that a sign called “Drummer’s Grove.” People had set up tents along the footpath that skirted the grove and were selling food in a similar setup to the one along Eastern Parkway on West Indian Day. I didn’t take a careful inventory but noticed curried meats and fish over rice, baked goods, grilled corn, soft drinks (tamarind, soursop, etc.). No jerk. I still had no appetite, but I was glad to have discovered the spot, made a mental note to come back, and stuck around to listen to the music.

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