Live Music, Hot Food, Hot Sauce

By June 28, 2012 no comments Permalink

A tassa drum ensemble performs every Saturday night at Singh’s Roti Shop and Bar in Richmond Hill, Queens. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

IT’S a warm June night on Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, a flat half-mile past the last stop on the A train. Inside what looks like a low, neon-lighted diner, a West Indian band has just taken its set break, and a tassa drum ensemble assembles in an alcove, four men loosely circled, between mirrored walls and beneath pinpoints of green and red light.

The crowd looks on reverently. The spectators are almost entirely of Afro- and Indo-Caribbean descent, seated at four-tops, waiting in line for food, gathered along a bar hung with the flags of Trinidad, Guyana, Grenada and other nations. The drums snap and bellow and plate-size cymbals clash, maintaining the rapid tempo of a prolonged fireworks finale. Two older men begin a ceremonial dance. A young woman with braided hair, long limbs and a joyous countenance takes to the floor. In a flurry of arms, hips and knees, she “wines” (or winds) with grace, rhythm and abandon — until the music stops and the room erupts in applause.

This is Singh’s Roti Shop and Bar on a Saturday night.

Harrygin Singh, the owner, moved to New York from Trinidad in 1980. His family came from India, as much of the island’s population had, to work the sugarcane plantations in the 19th century; his mother had a roti shop in Trinidad. After immigrating, Mr. Singh worked in a deli, then opened his own shop at 134th Street in 1990.

From the beginning, Singh’s has supported the southern Caribbean community in the neighborhood known as Little Guyana. A trophy shelf reflects the many triumphs of teams sponsored by Singh’s on the cricket pitch and in All Fours, the national card game of Trinidad and Tobago. Singh’s also backs the Miss Indo-Caribbean Beauty Pageant each spring.


Sauce is applied to an order of Doubles, a house specialty of flat breads filled with cooked and spiced vegetables, chutneys and pepper sauce. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

“I help the community in any way I can,” Mr. Singh said. “And they help me.”

Business was good enough from the outset that Mr. Singh expanded into the current, larger space, at 131st Street, after a few years. Every day, from 5:30 a.m. to midnight, and even later on Fridays and Saturdays, dozens of steaming trays overflow with offerings from Trinidad, Guyana and beyond.

Singh’s serves meats and shellfish: curried, stewed, jerked or barbecued. Fresh fish is fried, salted or smoked. Pumpkin, eggplant, yucca, plantains, okra and tomatoes are steamed and coated in tamarind sauce or cooked down into side dishes. There are traditional Chinese dishes, as well as West Indian variations like crispy-skin pork and char siu pork. Goat belly and pigeon feet tempt the adventurous. Pelau, or cook-up, the rice-based national dish of Trinidad and Tobago, is always available.

Everything is accompanied by flat breads from the islands or tucked inside fluffy roti, baked daily on-site. The restaurant sells savory pies and sweet cakes, as well, stacked above and beside the steam tables, along with candies, chocolates, sauces, chutneys and dried fruits and nuts. The beverage coolers are stocked with international beers, Caribbean sodas and house-made soft drinks like mauby, sorrel, sea moss and peanut punch.

All this variety reflects the improbable diversity of the southern Caribbean, famous for its collision of cultures.

On this Saturday night, Diane Sukhu dropped in for doubles, a house special of flat bread filled with curried vegetables and topped with chutneys and pepper sauce. (“Some people can’t handle the pepper sauce,” she laughed. “I can handle the pepper sauce!”)

Ms. Sukhu, 21, a native of Guyana, looked around at the revelers — young, old, black and South Asian. “This food is like a religion to the people here,” she said. “We may talk a little different, but there is no difference among us. We all enjoy the same things.”

Published on The New York Times: Live Music, Hot Food, Hot Sauce

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