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Singh's Roti Shop: A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue

Singh's Roti Shop: A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue

“Is it Jamaica, or Richmond Hill,” Zio asked frantically over the phone while cruising up and down Liberty Avenue looking for Gerry’s pick, Singh’s Roti Shop.

“Richmond Hill,” I said.

“Jamaica or Richmond Hill?” Zio asked again, his hearing aid obviously not functioning up to speed.

“Richmond Hill,” I repeated.

“Okay, I’ll be there soon,” he said.

I was in front of Singh’s when Zio called, after haven taken a brief walk around, peering in at the nearby Guyanese and Caribbean restaurants, the Brown Betty,” and Sybil’s Bakery, where there was a line waiting for Sybil’s offerings. Whatever it was they were waiting for smelled delicious.

There was a small line at the brightly lit Singh’s as well, and Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were already in the bar area to the left. Gerry with a plastic cup filled with vodka and Mike from Yonkers with a bottle of Carib beer. Eugene was once again a scratch; his expertise as a timekeeper for a high school basketball game the priority on this particular night.

While I sipped my own Carib, I wandered over to the steam table and tried to get a look at the many dishes that were available. I had my camera and began to take a few pictures. This brought the attention of a man behind the counter who seemed to be in charge of Singh’s intricate operations.

“Take a picture of him,” the man said, pointing to an Asian man who was carrying what looked like a stir fry lo mein-like dish. “He’s the chef.”

I obliged and snapped the chef’s picture who posed without affectation.

Mr. Singh, the man in charge, then asked what we wanted. Despite the long line to order, he had one of the female servers “take care of us.” Maybe it was the camera. Maybe it was because we were obviously not from the neighborhood. Whatever the reason, Mr. Singh was giving us V.I.P treatment including a sampling of some of the offerings.

The sampling included pepper chicken; a fried, breaded chicken reminiscent of sweet and sour chicken, but with a spice kick that took that Chinese/American classic to a higher level. There was also stewed pork with vegetables, and something else, Chinese-like, with green peppers and onions, we could not identify.

Singh’s served Caribbean Chinese food along with, what I thought was Guyanese, but after being chastised by Singh, told were Trinidadian specialties.

The Roti, an Indian bread stuffed with whatever you wanted; goat, beef, chicken, potato, was, of course, Singh’s specialty as was something called doubles; kind of a roti sandwich, a layer of roti bread lathered with chick peas and various condiments, and then topped with another flat roti, making a “double.”

While we were devouring the sample platter, Rick called to say he was at Sandy’s Roti Shop, also on Liberty Avenue, but in South Richmond Hill.

“It’s Singh’s, Roti Shop,” I said to him.“Not Sandy’s?”

“Not Sandy’s,” I replied.

“I’ll be right there,” he said. And then I realized I heard those same words from Zio quite awhile ago. And he still wasn’t here.

“Where are you?” I asked over the phone.

“I’m embarrassed to say I got lost,” he murmured sheepishly.

I gave him the address again and told him what Singh’s looked like.

“I’ll be right there,” he sighed.

And within minutes both Zio and Rick arrived. The line had grown while we were waiting for them, and Mike from Yonkers was anxious to get going—fearing Singh’s food supply might run out. Though from what I could see, that was a very slight possibility.

My new friend Singh again summoned one of his workers to put together our platters. I had no idea what was in most of the trays and when I asked, the female server impatiently blurted out what they were as if, in the bustle of the place, I could hear and register what she was telling me from the other side of the counter. So I ended up just pointing to things, more of that Chinese pepper chicken, a few orders of “doubles,” some of the mixed fried rice and the rice and peas, a container of dark green mashed callaloo, and stewed pork.

We plowed through the food effortlessly. All of it, despite the cafeteria-style, seemed fresh and flavorful, in particular, the unique “doubles,” which, at $1 each, a hefty bargain and enough to fortify even our gluttonous appetites. This Trinidadian street snack was no light appetizer and one remained on our table throughout the rest of our dinner; untouched and tightly wrapped in wax paper.

Despite the mounds of food, Rick was not quite fully satisfied. “I think we should try a few more things,” he said.

No one disagreed.

I went with him to the West Indian/Indian side of the counter where there were curries displayed along with more exotic dishes like conch (spelled “counch” on the menu) goat, and, something we couldn’t identify our server said was “goat belly.”

If goat belly was anything like pork belly, we had to try it.

Rick brought the second round of platters to the table. The stewed goat curry was tender, the meat easily coming off the bone. The conch could have used a couple more hours boiling, but maybe “al dente” is the preferred Trinidadian way. The goat belly, however, upon closer inspection, was a challenge, even for us.

Zio got close to it and sniffed.

“It’s smells like an old bicycle seat,” he said, and then bravely took a forkful.

“It’s trippa!,” he exclaimed.

The goat belly was indeed, tripe. Gerry sampled some. He shook his head. Mike from Yonkers, tried to chew a piece. “Un uh,” he muttered as he forced it down.

Thankfully, Rick had ordered a few pieces of roti bread to help us quash the foul taste of the goat belly.

We were done…almost.There were a few brightly-colored sweets I was interested in including one that was purple.

“Sugar cake,” was what our server barked out when I asked her what it was.

I brought a small sweets’ sampler back to our table; one of the sugar cakes and a bun. Gerry peered at the bun that was speckled with raisins and other candied fruits. “It looks dry,” he said.

He broke off a piece and chewed. He nodded. “It is dry.”

The desserts pretty much went untouched. We were done. The line at Singh’s was much shorter now. The damage to our wallets was light and our own belly’s full. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that. Except for Zio, who, before we walked out the door, grabbed the one untouched, still wrapped, “double,” and shoved it into his pocket.

I looked at him.“What?” He said. “It’ll taste even better tomorrow.”

Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: [email protected]_neckbones.

Little Guyana, an Indo-Guyanese enclave in Queens

The Little Guyana Bake Shop on Liberty Avenue sells addictive sweets. The Little Guyana strip of queens runs from 104th to 130th Street. (Ray Cavanaugh)
The Bake Shop on Liberty Avenue sells addictive sweets. The Little Guyana strip of Queens runs from 104th to 130th Street. (Ray Cavanaugh)

Nobody told me about Little Guyana, a mile-plus-long stretch in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens where the residents are Indian but sound like Bob Marley when they speak.

I discovered it by accident when I fell asleep on the A train, passed up my intended destination and was awakened by a fellow passenger telling me that the train had reached its last stop. The people here, known as Indo-Guyanese, are mainly descendants of indentured servants who were recruited from India (often by deceptive tactics) to work on the sugar plantations of present-day Guyana — formerly known as British Guiana — starting in 1838, when the British abolished black slavery in their colonies.

I was surprised to learn that the Guyanese are New York’s fifth-largest immigrant group, according to American Community Survey figures reported by multiple media outlets. It’s probably safe to say that many, if not most, Americans know little or nothing about Guyana, a small nation on the northeast coast of South America, although some may recall the 1978 Jonestown atrocity, in which cult leader Jim Jones persuaded (or forced) more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in the agrarian utopia he’d founded in that country.

Aside from a few Creole-sounding words, there’s no real language barrier in this neighborhood. Guyana is South America’s only English-speaking country. It’s also considered part of the Caribbean, and this West Indies connection accounts for the Bob Marley accent here in Little Guyana, a neighborhood that began to take shape in the 1970s.

Upon my unplanned arrival, I exited from the subway station onto Liberty Avenue, which cuts through the Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, and is the throbbing heart of Little Guyana. Refreshed by my subway snooze, I felt like walking a mile or so in the direction of the place I’d intended to visit. This intended destination was soon forgotten, though, as the Little Guyana carnival atmosphere cast its spell on me.

It would be difficult to overstate the vibrancy: I was hard-pressed to pass a block of storefronts without witnessing the full color spectrum on display. Nearby 101st Avenue has considerable flavor, but nothing approaching the bewitching carpet ride of Liberty Avenue. The Little Guyana strip runs from 104th to 130th Street. I noticed an Indo-Guyanese presence before and after these streets, but the cultural dynamism began to dissipate.

I kept hearing a wild type of music that I later learned is called “chutney.” It contains sounds of the Far East, but has a faster tempo and a more pulsating beat, reflecting the Caribbean influence. Because the weather was pleasant, cars with open windows kept delivering a loud dose of chutney. In many cases, though, open windows were superfluous some vehicles were equipped with speakers that blasted the music as if it were a block party.

Aesthetically, Liberty Avenue is less than flawless. Suspended overhead is a subway rail, an old structure that emits a cacophony of squeaks every few minutes as a train passes by. I also had to dodge some bird droppings. Urban grit is rife, but there’s no real danger.

In a span of mere blocks in the neighborhood, you’ll find a Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Hindu temple, above, a Pentecostal church and an Islamic clothing store. (Ray Cavanaugh)

The strip is bustling and unabashedly commercial. A house of worship might stand 30 feet from a rum joint and right next door to a henna tattoo parlor. Within three minutes of people-watching, I’d spotted Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and cross-wearing Christians passing by the same street corner. In a five-block radius you’ll find a Pentecostal church, a Jehovah’s Witness kingdom hall, a Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Hindu temple and an Islamic clothing store.

There’s also a spiritual venue directly beneath a subway entrance. This is called the Sri Durgamatha Astrological Center, where you can ascertain your everlasting destiny, for better or worse. I tried to go in, but the place was closed. Hopefully, there was no deeper meaning there.

Although many women go about in Western garb, I saw no shortage of saris, the traditional Indian dress, or sari shops, where prices range from a few dollars to many times that amount. My bargain-hunting senses were titillated by the DVD boxes full of low-priced Bollywood flicks at many spots along the strip.

At one point along Liberty Avenue, I encountered a snacker’s nirvana. I obtained a bite of heaven at the Little Guyana Bake Shop, where a mere 85 cents purchased me a coconut bun that was as sweet and fluffy as it was addictive. I then considered some pine tarts, cheese rolls and crunchy Guyanese sal sev biscuits. But I opted for jalebi (a circular sweet with the chewiest of textures) and salara (an especially decadent red coconut roll).

A few blocks from the Bake Shop, I met a machete-wielding man who offered, for $3, to hack open a coconut and plunge in a straw for my exotic refreshment. I thought about it but declined. Then I asked whether I could take a picture of him swinging his machete. He declined.

An intriguingly high number of restaurants were serving Chinese food done Guyanese style. As it turns out, a small population of Chinese also once worked as indentured servants in Guyana they left their culinary mark on their Indian counterparts.

Despite some occasional banality — CVS, 7-Eleven, McDonald’s — the overall cultural thumbprint is strong, about as much as it’s possible to find in the United States in 2014. That said, I’ve read that there has been discussion in the community about how to answer the classic multiple-choice ethnicity question: Despite being from South America, the Guyanese are not Latino. Nor are they black, white or East Asian. So, what are they?

I’m not sure, except to say that they’re a colorful and distinctive blend, just like their neighborhood.

Our review of Singh's Roti Shop

Cost: Dinner for two, including one buss up shot, two doubles, a cutter, and two bottles of tropical soda, including tax, $22

Sample dishes: goat roti, roast pork cutter, doubles, blood pudding, smoked herring bake

What to drink: Tropical sodas made in Guyana and Trinidad are available, in flavors like ginger beer, mango, pineapple, and kola. Beer also available

Bonus tip: If you’ve never had a roti before, pick boneless chicken with potato-and-chickpea curry and one spoonful of “pepper” included. Ask the attendant to add a dash of pumpkin, too, for extra flavor and sweetness.

Where They Can Handle the Hot Sauce

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.”

NYPD Inspector Deodat “Deo” Urprasad introduces Samuelsson to Sonny’s Roti Shop, where Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadian cuisines share space on the menu. They dine on doubles — fried flatbread topped with curried chickpeas — while discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion in the law enforcement sector.

Shivani Collado manages Singh’s Roti Shop, which combines Caribbean, Indian, and Chinese culinary influences into one very popular menu. At night, the restaurant adopts an entirely different atmosphere, bringing in live reggae and calypso music that people can eat, drink, and dance to.

Where the A train dead-ends at Lefferts Boulevard, Liberty Avenue stretches on into the heart of the enclave known as Little Guyana, part of the larger Richmond Hill neighborhood. Once a year, for the Hindu holiday of Diwali, a bedazzled motorcade turns the street into an eruption of colors, music and lights that is a taste of home for many of the neighborhood’s Indo-Caribbeans.

Despite this ornate show of community pride, to most Americans, and even New Yorkers, this population remains obscure. “People don’t know who we are,” says Lakshmee Singh, a talk show host and community leader in Queens,Richmond Hill, once a predominantly German and Italian neighborhood, has seen a steady stream of Guyanese immigrants since the 1970s. Today, it’s home to the largest Guyanese community outside of Guyana itself, with Guyanese immigrants representing the second largest foreign-born community in Queens.

But Lakshmee explains that Little Guyana has also become more diverse than it once was: “Today I call it Little Indo-Caribbean.” Trinidadian, Guyanese, and Surinamese businesses all operate side by side along Liberty Avenue. A majority of the area’s population are descendants of “East Indians” from the subcontinent who were brought over to these South American countries by the British as indentured servants to work, mainly on sugar plantations. “I think it’s very important that people know that we’re not East Indian,” she adds. “Maybe generations ago, but we have our own identity now.”

Guyana and its South American and Caribbean neighbors are diverse nations, and their culture is a mixture of South Asian, African, Indigenous, and colonial influences. But at Liberty Avenue’s Diwali parade, everyone comes out to celebrate this Indo-Caribbean tradition. “No one gets paid for the motorcade, but we put a lot of money into it,” Lakshmee explains, “and you know how it happens? Through the support of local businesses.” Little Guyana has a kaleidoscopic array of eateries and specialty shops, but there are a few dependable, affordable and homey establishments that are true anchors for the community.

The crown jewel of Little Guyana is Sybil’s Bakery, which occupies a Flatiron-like triangular building on the eastern end of Liberty Avenue, in the shadow of the AirTrain that runs from Jamaica to JFK Airport. Sybil’s does a brisk business seven days a week, and the full diversity of Guyana is reflected in their staff, clientele and cuisine. Pepper pot, a rich spiced beef stew traditionally served at Christmas, is dished out year round here. One of Guyana’s national dishes, it originated with an Amerindian recipe for stew made with cassareep, a molasses-like sauce made from cassava root. Pepper pot is best eaten with a piece of soft Guyanese plait bread, and Sybil’s makes the best loaf in town.

“We have a lot of items here that I don’t think any other Guyanese outfit in New York has,” owner Viburt Bernard says. “We try to put a lot of love into our work, because we do this for the pride, not necessarily for the money by now.” Viburt, better known by locals as Cookie, opened the Liberty Avenue branch of Sybil’s, which was originally founded by his mother, Sybil Bernard, on nearby Hillside Avenue more than 40 years ago. “When most Guyanese came here,” Viburt says, “Sybil’s was already here.”

Viburt’s office above the bakery is decorated with large photos and paintings of Demerara, Guyana, where the Bernard family has their roots. He still owns a property in the rainforest there, which is only accessible by boat or helicopter. But New York has been his home base since the early 1970s.

One of nine children, Viburt learned how to bake by working at a family shop back in Guyana. When his mother lost her job in Queens in 1976, she suggested that he pitch in to help start a new business. “So we started baking out of the house,” he explains, “in the kitchen for two years, then we moved to the basement, and then we came out to Hillside Avenue in 1978, and bought a little spot there.”

The Liberty Avenue branch, now something of a flagship, opened 10 years later, and their menu began to expand. “My grandmother was Indian,” Viburt says, “she had a lot of Indian recipes that she gave to my mom, like pholourie[deep fried spicy dough balls] and potato balls. We did those, we did curries of course, and some bakery products like tennis rolls, bread, another cake called salara, a couple pastries, and that was it in the beginning.”

Now Sybil’s serves over a hundred different items, catering to a wider audience. Along with the distinctive, miniature pie-shaped Guyanese beef patty, you can also find the standard-issue Jamaican kind. The diversity of the offerings brings in huge crowds, and Sybil’s is a clear crowd favorite in Little Guyana. “I’ve been doing this for so long now, and it’s not easy work,” Viburt says. “But my mother’s name is on the sign, and we’re proud of that. Sometimes I want to work less, or get out somehow, but we provide jobs to so many people, and provide these products to the community. And I’ve been doing this since I was a child.”

When it comes to other Guyanese and Trinidadian businesses in Little Guyana, Viburt says he wishes them the best, but there are so many that it can be difficult to set yourself apart. Bakeries and roti shops sometimes come and go, and the vast selection of places can be overwhelming. It’s a joy just to stroll down Liberty Avenue and take in the garlands of flowers adorning Hindu goods stores, the smell of curry, and the sounds of Bollywood and Jamaican dancehall music, but Sybil’s isn’t the only local restaurant that’s worth a try. Several other establishments have managed to set themselves apart, too.

A few blocks south on Rockaway Boulevard is Flamingo Restaurant and Mantra Lounge, a somewhat clubbier place specializing in curries, Trinidadian snacks, seafood, and the kind of sweet and spicy Chinese-Caribbean cuisine that’s popular in Guyana and Trinidad. Bake and shark, a flatbread sandwich with chunks of fried shark meat, veggies, and tamarind sauce, is a popular choice. Here the dish is served “Maracas Beach style,” in reference to the beach in Trinidad where bake and shark was popularized, and where the shark is caught just offshore and fried up on the beach. At night Flamingo can feel more like a club, but during the day Lakshmee says, “it’s the only family style Trinidadian restaurant we have in Richmond Hill.”

At Good Hope Restaurant, as at many of the other Guyanese-Chinese establishments on Liberty Avenue, the beer is cheap and the ‘80s soul hits are turned up loud. These bars are modeled off the Chinese restaurants around Guyana, which are generally dimly-lit taverns. Good Hope serves a great rendition of the Sino-Caribbean dish Cha Che Kai Chicken, skin-on chicken chunks fried and tossed with chiles and green onions, producing a distinctly West Indian flavor. It’s best enjoyed with a beer while watching a cricket match or horse race on one of Good Hope’s five flat screens.

Though Good Hope’s funky playlist may be more likely to inspire a beery singalong, the real soundtrack of Little Guyana is chutney music, a Caribbean fusion genre created by the Bhojpuri- and Hindi-speaking diaspora of Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad. To an outsider, chutney can sound something like Bollywood dance music set to a Jamaican dancehall beat, and though many chutney songs have Hindi lyrics, Lakshmee Singh says most Indo-Caribbean people who sing along don’t actually understand them, having grown up speaking Caribbean English. Even down to its name, though, chutney evokes Guyanese flavor.

It’s hard to walk down Liberty Avenue without hearing chutney, and at Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar, a DJ spins chutney, soca and reggae while you eat. On Saturday nights, live Caribbean bands play while customers drink at the bar and eat rotis. Singh’s rotis are filled with curried chicken, goat, oxtail, fish or chickpeas, and sit on steam table trays beside chow mein and fried rice. The place dishes out 800 dhalpuris, rotis filled with ground yellow split peas, every single day.

Though their Guyanese clientele is ample, the Singh family is from Trinidad, and they specialize in Trini street snacks like doubles, which have become popular with all Indo-Caribbeans. Doubles consist of curried chickpeas sandwiched between a pair of bara fry breads, optionally topped with various hot pepper and tamarind sauces. Bara indicate the Indian roots of the dish, having descended from the Indian fritters called vada that were brought to the Caribbean by indentured servants. Shivani Singh, whose family owns the shop, says today doubles are a ubiquitous and inexpensive street food on the island. “It’s almost like their version of a hot dog. Everybody eats it. All ethnicities.”

One doubles at Singh’s costs a dollar, and a sign advertises that despite increasing costs, the snack will never cost more than that. “It’s for the community too,” Shivani says. “You want a quick, cheap eat. My parents have been around for 30 years now, and they don’t do a lot of things for the money. They’d rather make people happy.” From its dance hall ambiance to its reliable prices, Singh’s is a community-minded place.

Eat a few Indo-Caribbean meals, and you’ll begin to get familiar with terminology like doubles, bake and shark, and pholourie. But sometimes the flavors can still seem unidentifiable to an outsider. Guyanese and Trinidadian food wouldn’t taste the way it does without ingredients like cassareep, achar (Indian-style pickles), shado beni (an herb known in Spanish as culantro or recao) or gilbacker (a variety of fish now technically banned in the U.S.). Part of what makes Little Guyana so special is that along Liberty Avenue, these specialty ingredients are readily available – even the illicit gilbacker.

Little Guyana Bake Shop offers many of the same baked goods as Sybil’s, but it’s especially notable for its wide selection of groceries. Guyanese brands of tamarind chutney, hot pepper sauce, corned mutton, and crunchy split channa line the shelves. Fresh fish, many of which are specific to Guyanese cuisine, are flown in from the Caribbean every week. Little Guyana Bakery has two locations along Liberty, and it’s only one of many specialty stores offering this kind of Indo-Caribbean variety.

Lakshmee Singh says that in the past, Guyanese would often have to ask relatives to send them items like achar and hot pepper sauce from home, but recently she’s had to tell her family there to stop mailing her Guyanese foods. These days, she says, “anything that you want, you can find on Liberty Avenue.”

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The Left Chapter

Kothur Indian Cuisine in Mimico has been serving (and delivering) some of the west end's best Indian fare for several years now. Just down the street from and affiliated with the excellent Everest Hakka House that we profiled on The Left Chapter before, it deserves a broader post of its own.

You really can't go wrong here with everything from their notable samosas to their Gobi Manchurian to their excellent fish or shrimp curries.

Today we are going to take a look at Kothur's weekday lunch special (available 11 am-3 pm). It is a terrific way to introduce yourself to their menu at a very affordable $10.99 flat rate price.

The special includes a small bowl of Mulligatawny Soup, a pakora, naan bread and rice, a main and a rice pudding for dessert.

Lamb vindaloo, rice, rice pudding and naan
The mains available are exceptionally varied and run the gambit from vegetarian to chicken to lamb or beef entrees. They do not include fish or shrimp entrees.

The Mulligatawny Soup is a great way to start as they make one that is perfectly seasoned, with a nice, subtle level of heat.

With so many mains to choose from it is hard to narrow it down to just a few.

Butter Chicken

The chicken, lamb or beef vindaloos are spectacular with a wonderfully tangy sauce. The Butter Chicken avoids the cloying sweetness of some interpretations for a more balanced taste. A vegetarian stand out is the Malai Kofta, a rich blend of cheese and vegetable dumplings in a cashew sauce. If you like Panneer dishes there are number to choose from, all very satisfying.

Mutter Panneer
While not a part of the special, I can never pass up a side order of Kothur's top-notch Indian Mixed Pickle. I think Indian Pickle, in its many varieties, is one of the great dishes on the planet, and Kothur offers up one that is lime based, salty, spicy and delicious.

Kothur Indian Cuisine is located at 2403 Lake Shore Blvd W., on the 501 Queen Streetcar line, and is a block east of Mimico Avenue. 416-253-5047. It is fully licensed. It is also located by the lovely Amos Waites Park.

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Watch the video: Trinidadian Doubles are the Best Cheap Eats in Brooklyn Dining on a Dime (November 2021).