Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Itals

A Tale of Two Itals
Looking back, it was probably inevitable that I would be drawn to Ital cuisine. How could it be otherwise, given my newfound vegan status - amplified by a love for exotic, untried cuisine (not to mention tried--but true--favorites, such as roti and Trinidadian doubles?) Sure, it required trips into unknown neighborhoods. But hey, it was fate...with the promise of something new - not to mention tasty.

And it was certainly unknown. One of the lesser known cuisines, Ital is the official cuisine of the Rastafarian movement. Derived from the word vital, the philosophy dictates food which is pure, natural...and straight from the earth - lacking processing, and chemical additives. In most instances, the cuisine is vegan - eschewing flesh and (most) fish products. What remains are vegetables, beans - and the occasional soy product. The cuisine is mostly vegan, with West Indian flavor...a nice combination, at least for people with my type of taste.

As with most minority cuisines--such as Burmese, or Ghanian, or even Taiwanese--Ital isn't easy to find. Only certain neighborhoods carry the food. In the case of Ital, Brooklyn is the enclave of choice - with secondary options in Harlem, and White Plains Road, located in the Bronx.

For me, Brooklyn proved too far a journey (I live in the Bronx, and work in Manhattan.) Fortunately, closer options did exist. Spurred on by a sense of adventure, I traveled first through the Bronx - and later to Harlem. A small price to pay, in order to get a taste of Ital...in all of its vegetarian glory.

HIM Ital Organic Restaurant - 754 Burke Avenue, Bronx, NY 10467-6612 (Ital/West Indian)
An enclave of West Indian cuisine, Burke Avenue (and nearby White Plains Road) are studded with patty and roti shops, serving authentic Jamaican (a refreshing chance, in a city filled with Golden Krust.)

Among these--in the middle of Burke Avenue--stands HIM Ital Organic Restaurant, a small, narrow shop - visually undistinguishable from the surrounding storefronts. But inside, there is a difference. Unlike their beef patty brethren, HIM Organic sells Ital food. Strictly vegan, and very Rastafarian

The choices focus primarily on juices and counter takeout. Choose two, or three dishes - or get four for $10.00 (resulting in a reasonable size plate - enough to fill a hungry stomach, but not cause discomfort.) Given the travel time to get across the Bronx, I resolved to make it worth my while, digging in heartily. Four tempting options were chosen, consisting of vegetables, grains, beans and yam. The service was pleasant, and so was the taste.

And yet...

I wanted to love it...but something was missing. Was it the spice, and the expected kick of curry? Whatever it was, the oomph was lacking - leaving a lasting impression of (good) cafeteria food. The meal satisfied the belly - but not the soul. I sadly walked away...vowing that I would give Ital food another chance. A cuisine combining West Indian sensibilities with vegan options? It deserved at least that much. Next stop - Strictly Roots!

Strictly Roots - 2058 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, NYC (Ital/West Indian)
Yes, Virginia, there is Ital in Harlem - located close to the 125th street subway (just around the corner from the Apollo.)

A small, comfortable shop, Strictly Roots specializes in Rastafarian cuisine - with hot dishes their specialty. Options include steamed veggies, fried plantains, rice, beans, and faux meat entrees...not to mention a host of sandwiches, soups, pastries and fresh juice blends. The service is good and meals affordable (four or so options costs $8.00 a plate, available for takeout or eat-in.)

Mildly flavored, the dishes are unlikely to impress a hardcore spicer - but they have character nonetheless, and even a degree of flair. Especially the meat options, which look disturbingly real - from the stringy, well textured "lamb curry" to the fish dish - complete with a thin, black "skin" still attached. And as for the pastries...give them a try. Options range from apple pie to coconut cake (a sweet, crumbly cake that proved the highlight of my meal.)

Is it worth a second trip? Not for me - but then, I thrill on Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese - my tastebuds demand more. But subtle can be nice, as well. If Strictly Roots were in my neighborhood, it would be a semi-regular haunt.

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