Yes, I Felt a Little Like This Guy after Dinner
In a menu promotion lasting all summer long, TGIFriday’s is offering 17 new food and drink items inspired by the cultural melting pot that is the Caribbean – and I think I just tasted all of them. I’m too full now. And I must have some kind of tan.
The whole Taste of the Islands menu is built around a promotional partnership with Captain Morgan (the catchily marketed spiced rum), and that probably won’t surprise anyone who enjoys the food at TGIFriday’s. After all, one of the best burgers I’ve had anywhere is the one they do with Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Just think outside the bottle a little, and I’m sure you or I could come up with a decent attempt at “Captain Sauce.” The stuff, more like a spicy A1ish steak sauce than the usual sweet-tomatoey BBQ sauce, turns up on several of the best items on the new summer menu.
As the author of nine travel and food books about the Caribbean, I have to grant TGIFriday’s – a chain with more than 900 locations in 61 countries, counting Texas – pretty high marks for authenticity. Emerging from their flourish of test kitchens and focus groups is a set of dishes that evoke no single island as much as the flip-floppy beachfront existence that is the single most compelling Caribbean fantasy.
Things that director of operations Jay Velez describes as “polarizing” – too much heat from peppers, weird spices fighting for attention – get left on the cutting room floor. What makes the cut are pineapple and coconut, of course, plus sweeter spices like cinnamon and allspice that speak with just enough surprise when encountered in savory dishes, unless you happen to be from North Africa or, more likely around here, Sicily. These dishes do indeed offer us A Taste of the Islands – probably about as much of one as most diners really want anyway. The fact that Jamaicans eat more Curried Goat and Oxtail Stew than Grilled Grouper seems a silly technicality once you buy into the Friday’s fantasy.
Velez got a hand in showing me through the menu from Becca Galindo, the spirited kitchen manager of the company’s Northwest Freeway location. And thanks to both of them, even when the clouds opened and Noah’s flood poured down outside the windows, the sun was always shining at our table.
Ribs and Shrimp
Captain Morgan being booze, things kicked off with a beach landing of Caribbean cocktails. There was a nifty rum punch and an even better spin on pina colada. Like the poor martini these days, the “colada” has moved past its “pina” to let almost anything show up in an icy glass with sweet coconut cream. In this case, there’s a delicious peach version available (or strawberry or passion fruit), a bit like what would happen if Harry’s Bar moved from Venice lock, stock and Bellini and settled in Mo’ Bay. Considering the difficulties the Ciprianis have faced in New York in recent years, this actually might not be a bad idea.
Three of the best dishes from the food side feature that Captain Sauce, plus flavor profiles that touch base with what Becca calls “Cajun seasoning” (seemingly more of the blackening seasoning than a seasoned salt like my beloved Tony Chachere’s), Jamaican-style “jerk spice” (really, not very Jamaican, since it tastes like a dried blend rather than the traditional wet and vegetal paste), and lots of that aforementioned rum.
These three best bets are the utterly tender and terrific Rockin’ Reggae Ribs, the grilled (not batter-fried) Captain Morgan Wings and a really neat spin on a chicken sandwich (think Jack Daniel’s Burger, with a different booze and a different protein). This chicken breast is fire-grilled and basted with the spiced rum and served on a bun with seasoned sour cream, pineapple pico, fresh cilantro and avocado, plus sweet potato fries and extra sauce for dipping.
A lot of foods from the Island menu show up with avocado and pico de gallo, thus erasing the lines on the map between, say, Antigua or Barbados and Cancun or Cozumel. Taste, texture and color arrive at your table with them. Personally, I try to never complain when that happens.
There is one new dessert, and it’s a true original. I wrote an entire cookbook called Caribbean Desserts years ago, and it has no recipe in it quite like this. The Island Breeze Sundae is vanilla ice cream and sweetened wonton crisps served with pineapple, mango and strawberries, then drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with whipped cream. Order the family-style version for wholesale digging in, cold stuff on a hot skillet. It’s like the first time you tried Mexican fried ice cream, mixed with the first time you bit into a sugary funnel cake at the state fair.
I seriously doubt the real Captain Henry Morgan or any other pirate in the Caribbean ever really had this much fun. Then again, I’m confident he never painted a red mustache on anybody either!
Grilled Chicken Wings