Two months ago, Anna Molina threw up her hands and threw out her menu. For eight years, Molina had served Caribbean-style cuisine at El Caribe, the combination restaurant and nightclub she operated in an ugly Lenexa strip mall. Things were pretty good until September 11, 2001. After that, her dinner business began slipping, then worsened when road construction started on her stretch of 87th Street Parkway two years ago.
"And they've got two more years of construction work left," Molina said recently, shaking her mane of dark, curly hair. "I had to do something."
The solution came to her one night while she watched the late-night clientele crowd the bar for ice-cold Coronas and caipirinhas, the potent Brazilian cocktails made with sugar-cane liquor. The regulars came to El Caribe several times a week to dance to recorded salsa music, drink and perform Spanish karaoke. "Very few of the people who came here to dance were also dining customers," Molina said. "They weren't interested in Caribbean food."
So Molina took a gamble and overhauled her menu completely. Out went Cuban black-bean soup, Puerto Rican pasteles, Jamaican meat pies and fried plantains. The new menu is almost totally Mexican in flavor. But Molina didn't want to compete with her neighbor in the strip center, Jalapeño's, which serves traditional Mexican-American fare. "I'm only serving Mexican coastal cuisine," she said. "I don't do burritos or enchiladas. Almost everything on my menu is seafood."
Shrimp, in particular, is the featured ingredient in 15 of the menu's 28 items. Shrimp cocktail, shrimp fajitas and tacos, shrimp and catfish soup, shrimp grilled and sautéed and wrapped in bacon.
For diners who don't particularly care for seafood, this presents a culinary complication. Take the night that I went to El Caribe with my friends Wendy and Eddie. Wendy was a vegetarian when I first met her many years ago. But she started eating red meat again at some point in the past few years. "I had to," she told me. "I became anemic. And anyway, eating all those carbohydrates was making me gain weight." For some reason, I assumed that her return to the carnivore fold meant that she had lifted her personal restriction on fish and shellfish, too. "But I never really liked seafood," Wendy said, wrinkling her nose at the El Caribe menu. "And I don't eat it now."
There was a brief moment of awkward silence as we sat there in our little booth, under a thatched awning bedecked with twinkling Christmas tree lights. Wendy turned a page of the menu and audibly breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God. There's meat."
Not a lot of it, but Molina does offer steak fajitas, steak tacos and a steak picado dinner. For those who prefer pollo, the menu also lists chicken fajitas and tacos and the one holdover from the old El Caribe menu, jerk chicken. It's a good thing that Wendy isn't a vegetarian anymore, because El Caribe isn't exactly vegan-friendly, unless you can make a meal out of beans and rice.
"What's this?" asked Wendy, pointing to the short list of "entrée soups" on the menu. "It says, 'Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made with' and then it goes blank."
That may not be a typo, I said. She and Eddie had never heard of menudo before, so I explained that it's a spicy Mexican stew made with chiles, hominy, beef stomach and, usually, a calf's foot. Wendy blanched, and our waitress, Cecilia, laughed as she set a basket of corn chips and salsa on the table.
"Maybe the reason there's no description on the menu," Cecilia said, winking at me, "is that most people who order it already know what it is."
No one in the joint was likely to order menudo that night. Our trio wasn't interested, and we were the only customers sitting in the dining room. (There were a couple of guys sitting across the room, hunkered at the bar.) Eddie and I were hungry enough to share an appetizer. Wendy had to content herself with corn chips because almost every starter was made with shrimp. There's also a ceviche tostada topped with marinated tilapia.
At Cecilia's suggestion, we decided to share the mini seafood chimichangas. It was a good choice: four tubes of flaky dough wrapped around dollops of chopped crab and shrimp mixed with cream cheese and red chile sauce. Wendy picked at the pastry crust but wouldn't touch the seafood filling.
Her dinner, luckily, was a meaty affair. El Caribe's steak picado is a variation of the Tex-Mex picadillo ground beef in a spicy tomato sauce served here as slivers of chopped round steak sautéed with onion and green peppers in a punchy (but not fiery) red chile sauce. Molina doesn't particularly care for spicy food herself, so her cook uses a discreet hand with the chile powder.
I'm happy to say that the jerk chicken, which I loved five years ago, when I first reviewed the restaurant ("Fantasy Island," February 15, 2001), still packs some heat. A juicy breast is rubbed with a pepper-and-allspice paste and served sizzling hot, topped with a generous spoonful of house-made pineapple chutney.
Eddie unintentionally ordered the blandest dish on the menu: chicken fajitas served on a steel plate that should have white-hot and hissing with steam ... but wasn't. Only after he wished aloud that the sliced chicken breast had been seasoned in some fashion did Molina inform us that, upon request, she would serve a jerk-chicken fajita dinner.
"It's a cute little place," Wendy said after we paid the bill and walked out the door. "But I guess it doesn't get very lively until the karaoke crowd gets there."
On my next visit, I brought my friend Bob along. He had eaten at El Caribe in its previous incarnation and was curious to see what was cooking on the new coastal menu. "Well, it looks exactly the same," he said, pointing out the shiny tile floor, which was done up in shades of blue and tan to represent, according to Molina, sea and sand. Glow-in-the-dark stars lined the ceiling above the dance floor. Along the perimeter of the room were paper piñatas, shiny pennants and various beer-company promotional trinkets.
Bob turned up his nose at the nachos de camerones y cangrejo tortilla chips with shrimp and crab that sounded so much better on the menu than they looked. A pile of corn chips was splattered with the same pink cream-cheese-and-seafood gook that looked so much more appetizing inside the mini chimichangas. On the other hand, Bob gave a thumbs up to the fresh-tasting guacamole, which was dappled with chopped onion and tomato. He wouldn't even share it with me.
The four shrimp entrées all sounded enticing enough, but I wavered between the fried tilapia ("It's a whole fish," Molina warned me) and the filete de Mojara, a fillet of tilapia marinated in lime juice, garlic, wine and a hint of cayenne, then sautéed with butter. I'm glad I chose the latter; it was a delicious, light dish, and I felt healthy eating it even when I folded pieces of the fish in a warm flour tortilla and ate it taco-style.
Bob lustily devoured two soft tacos, one heaped with sautéed chicken, the other with pieces of steak. "It's really great," he said, "but it's not very Caribbean."
"But it's not a Caribbean menu anymore," I tried to explain.
Molina said her dinner business has improved since she changed the menu. Patrons who formerly came in only to play pool or dance to the Latin music now arrive early and order food. But some of her old customers miss a few of her island specialties, such as the empanada-style meat pies. "And paella," she said. "I'm thinking of offering paella again."
But she'll never change the name of her restaurant or the tropical décor. "I like tropical," Molina said. "It's happy."
Turn up the karaoke machine, honey. I'll sing to that.