If you can't fly away to the Caribbean, Lenexa has a no-frills alternative.

Fantasy Island 

If you can't fly away to the Caribbean, Lenexa has a no-frills alternative.

A getaway to the azure waters and powdery white beaches of the Caribbean sounds practically intoxicating during the gray, chilly days of February. Unfortunately, there's the inconvenience of having to pay for the airfare, the hotel and that expensive but potent Planter's Punch served at the cabana.

I'm too broke to hop on the next plane to Antigua, but Lenexa offers a less glamorous alternative -- if you're willing to leave the sun, the water, the sand and the cabana out of the picture.

El Caribe Cafe and Bar offers the flavors of the Caribbean islands, without any other benefits. It's no small irony that one of the city's most tropical restaurants is located in one of its ugliest strip malls: a collection of squat, brick industrial-quality buildings in Lenexa.

From the outside, El Caribe could pass as anything from a dental office to a finance company. Inside the glass doors, however, things take a livelier turn. The large green-and-white tiled room sports four patio tables with big blue umbrellas advertising Corona beer and a good number of booths tucked underneath a thatched awning bedecked with twinkling plastic pepper lights.

With its tropical cocktails and spicy fare, you'd think that El Caribe would be a big draw in the dull Midwestern winter. But on each of my visits, including one on a Saturday night, only two or three tables were full -- until the dancers showed up.

On one cold Saturday night at 8, I had the dining room nearly to myself. A handful of noisy people were sitting at the corrugated-steel bar, sipping beers and Voodoo Juice (coconut milk, pineapple and rum), but I was the only person actually eating.

Vanessa, the server, brought a cup of black bean soup, an appetizer -- the Puerto Rican pastele -- and a salad all at the same time. A basket of French bread arrived a few seconds later and the main course shortly after that. I couldn't help but think, "Are they trying to rush me out of here?"

The food, however, was enough to keep me planted in my booth for some time -- it wasn't great, but it was interesting. The Cuban soup, a thick concoction of black beans and onion, was bland. (The more expensive Brazilian black bean soup tastes exactly the same, despite a few hunks of sausage and ham.) The French bread was as dry and tasteless as sand. Much better was the pastele, a flat, square, steaming tamalelike concoction. Inside a gray-green banana leaf was a tasty blend of pork, peas, taro root and plantain, though I'd have loved a few more splashes of sofrito, that lightly sauteed traditional seasoning of onion, tomato, garlic, capers, peppers and olives. The salad worked as a palate cleanser: a little fish-shaped glass dish with mixed greens, a few curls of shaved carrot, a couple of translucent marinated onion rings and a mango-guava vinaigrette that was far too vinegary.

But the jerk chicken made up for everything else. A juicy and tender breast had been rubbed with the pepper-and-allspice paste that makes up Jamaica's signature dish; this one wasn't fiery hot, but it sizzled enough to require the mellowing influence of a dollop of cool, sweet pineapple chutney.

A few days later, I returned with my friends Gunna and Bob. Even though it was only 7 p.m., the patio tables were gone and the place was almost empty. "It looks exactly like a Caribbean restaurant I visited in Chicago," said Gunna, looking around the festive but lonely dining room, "except the Chicago place was busier."

Not for long, though. We had barely dived into our appetizers when the members of the Kansas City Swing Club, led by a vivacious little lady in silver pumps and giant rhinestone earrings, started arriving. Before long, they were whirling around the dance floor to music playing on a small CD player -- and not the 1940s-style swing you'd expect from a swing club. This was a lot of early Madonna. The swing clubbers come on Tuesday nights, and most other nights feature some kind of dancing, including salsa and merengue on Fridays and Saturdays. The party usually gets going around 11 p.m., Vanessa told us.

Bob and Gunna were entranced by the swingers. I was entranced by the appetizers. This time we tried a number of variations on the plantain, an island staple that's a starchy vegetable in its unripe state, a bananalike sweet fruit when ripe. El Caribe serves plantain in the form of light and crispy chips with a creamy (and salty) smoked marlin dip; plantain also comes in a thicker and softer version, as circles of garlicky tostones with a tart, creamy dipping sauce made of mayonnaise, lime juice and a dash of chipotle peppers, and a basket of fried platanos maduro is almost like a dessert. The Latin-influenced Jamaican meat pies -- flaky empañadas, really -- were filled with mildly spiced beef or chicken, deep-fried and served with a kicky guava-jalapeno sauce.

Vanessa cleared the plates, brought Gunna an icy mango Margarita ("Too sweet," Gunna pronounced after a long sip) and scurried through the whirling dancers with our dinners. I had toyed with the idea of ordering a traditional Brazilian dish of black beans cooked with sausage and served over white rice with collard greens and yuca (the sweet root also known as cassava or manioc) with butter. But Gunna, who has lived in Brazil, warned that it was pretty heavy. "It's a Sunday dish," she said, "eaten to cure hangovers."

So instead I ordered the lechon asado, a dry and bland slice of roasted pork. I envied Gunna's luscious relleno de tostones, crunchy little fried plantain cups filled with fat, tender pink shrimp in a spicy Creole sauce. And after a single bite of Bob's fricassee de pollo, a thick, juicy chicken breast sauteed with spicy sofrito, I nearly swiped his entire plate.

We had only two possibilities for dessert: a dense cheesecake, with a crust as thick as its cheese filling, splashed with either a sweet mango or more tangy guava sauce, or a wedge of Key lime pie -- a bitter tart, actually, smothered in fake-tasting whipped cream, with a graham cracker crust so thick and tough I could have soled my dancing shoes with it. I'd much rather have eaten another basket of fried ripe plantains.

They taste just like being in the Caribbean, without the sunburn.


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