Afro-Caribbean cuisine is best known for its fiery chicken, pork and goat dishes, the meat stewed tender and spiked to four-alarm levels with jerk seasoning, a mixture of peppers (especially the near-atomic Scotch Bonnet variety), allspice, nutmeg, paprika and a dozen other herbs and spices.
Beach House Caribbean Coffee & Tapas, a tiny American fusion restaurant that opened in January in a bright yellow clapboard building on Sixth Street, offers all of those meat dishes, plus strong-but-mellow Haitian coffee and ice cream. But vegetarians and vegans — as well as carnivores who like to mix things up on occasion — also find plenty to enjoy here.
Owned and operated by David Laurenvil, who was born and raised in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, Beach House, includes a number of meatless selections on its menu of smallish plates meant to be shared. They include “Jamaican me vegan” (get it?), a composed salad with chickpeas, rice, potatoes and avocado, and a surprising house specialty, jackfruit tacos.
The flesh of the jackfruit — a large fruit the size and shape of a watermelon that’s grown and eaten in tropical regions around the world — soaks up jerk seasoning as well as any chicken thigh. Chopped and sauteed in a rich mahogany mixture of jerk seasoning, brown sugar and soy sauce, the jackfruit also has the texture and appearance of stewed meat.
“If people don’t know what jackfruit is and they look at it on a plate, they think it’s meat,” Laurenvil says. “Some people come for our vegan tacos, and when you serve it they say, Oh, I didn’t want any meat!”
Served on soft grilled tortillas and topped with onions, cilantro, sweet-and-spicy mango-pineapple salsa and a last-minute dusting of jerk seasoning, the jackfruit tacos are explosively flavorful. Firm to the tooth without being tough, the flesh gives the diner the sensation of eating braised meat.
Laurenvil’s culinary heritage was transmitted to him by his mother, Fida Noel, a retired home cook and caterer who fled her native Haiti about 40 years ago to escape the repressive regime of the dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. (“The Black Maroon,” a painting by local artist Agustin Zarate celebrating Haiti’s successful struggle for independence from France in 1804, hangs in the Beach House dining room.)
Laurenvil says he always knew his mother’s food was tasty, but he didn’t focus on her cooking methods until a few years ago when he and his siblings helped launch Fida’s Caribbean Cafe inside Al’s Bar at Sixth and Limestone.
“It wasn’t until we started the restaurant that I started noticing the magic of how my mom cooks,” he recalls. “Even when we knew the amounts and what it was supposed to look like, it didn’t have the same taste at first. Something was missing.”
It took some focusing on the finer points, such as heat levels and resting times, before the true Haitian Creole flavors started coming through loud and clear. “What I got from my mom was, ’This is how it’s always been done,’” Laurenvil says. “That’s where the soul comes from.”
But he wasn’t content to simply reproduce his mother’s cooking. Using her traditional recipes as a foundation, Laurenvil has incorporated influences from other cultures to give them a contemporary American twist. He gives the traditional Cuban sandwich, for example, a fresh spin by using shredded ham (as opposed to sliced roast pork) and American cheese, and giving the bread a crunchy texture by pressing it like a panini.
He’s also borrowed from Spanish and Latin American cultures by serving many dishes on tortillas. He also adapted the small-plate tradition, or tapas, to more closely approximate a Caribbean meal, with everyone around the table sharing multiple dishes with smaller yet still generous portions. “We don’t do one piece of chicken and call it a day,” he says. “We do family-style meals.”
Perhaps the quintessential example of Laurenvil’s willingness to cross-pollinate his culinary roots is the jackfruit, which he serve on salads and as Caribbean BBQ as well as on the popular tacos.
“It’s become one of our most requested items,” Laurenvil says. “It delivers those same Afro-Caribbean flavors without including meat, which for a lot of our customers is very important.”
Beach House Caribbean Coffee & Tapas
Where: 109 W. Sixth Street, Lexington
Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday