CARLTON FLETCHER: Finding favor with Caribbean Flavor

OPINION: Chance stop-off adds to great-local-places-to-eat list

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Them Georgia Peaches sure do got the style. They’ll steal your heart with a Southern smile.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

I met Wendell and Deborah Joseph, as we so often do, by chance.

I’d driven by their restaurant, Caribbean Flavor, at 1421 N. Jefferson St., on the way to and from work every day for the past three months or so. And while I’m not exactly the most adventurous eater — Mike Choi has his cook fix up the same spicy chicken concoction he came up with every time I walk in the door at House of China II, and Mona Qaqish knows I’ll always have her vegetable soup if the chicken and rice is not on the Cookie Shoppe’s menu — but each day when I drove by Caribbean Flavor, I found myself thinking I should stop in.

On a whim a couple of Fridays ago, I finally did. I consider that whim one of the few things I’ve done right in the last little while.

Deborah is a doll, one of those wonderful people who can talk to you for five minutes and make you feel like you’ve been knowing each other forever. I asked Wendell, who is a native of Trinidad and Tobago, how he ended up settling in Albany, and Deborah answered for him.

“He met a true Georgia Peach and knew he couldn’t do without her,” she says with her thousand-watt smile.

Wendell could only grin.

I asked for a dinner recommendation, and Wendell suggested curry chicken. Turned out to be an excellent suggestion, and I quickly found myself making an addition to my great-local-places-to-eat list.

On my third trip to Caribbean Flavor, which is located at the southern foot of the Jefferson Street overpass, Wendell and I had an opportunity to sit and chat for a few minutes. In his lilting accent, the big man gave me a brief verbal tour of his life.

He came to the States to study and maybe find work, landed a job with a steel erection company in Dallas, whose winters were too cold for Wendell’s tropical island blood, and came to Albany to visit his mom — who was working at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany — in what he thought would be a brief stop-off on his way back home.

That was in 1986.

He met the Georgia Peach love of his life a short while after stopping in Albany and decided to stick around. They’ll have been married 23 years in June.

“It was his accent and his mannerisms that attracted me to him at first,” Deborah, an Albany State University psychology/sociology graduate who also works at Advantage Counseling Service, says of her man. “There’s also the fact that I know how to cook, but he likes to cook.”

Wendell had taken to cooking in Trinidad and Tobago as early as age 9 — “picking up things from my mother and on my own” — so after doing a few odds and ends here and there, he decided to give the restaurant business a go.

He, Deborah — who’s in charge of “presentation,” especially on catering jobs — Deborah’s sister Kathy Frierson and Kathy’s daughter Chelsea Frierson keep Caribbean Flavor all in the family. But it’s Wendell who does all the cooking.

“I’d like to hire someone else to help me, but I can’t find a person willing to learn,” he says, then offers a lament common to employers the region over. “People here seem to want the money, but they don’t seem to want to do the work to earn it.”

So Wendell cooks up his Caribbean-flavored favorites six days a week: curried goat, ox tail, pepper steak, beef tips, pepper shrimp, jerk pork, red beans and rice, jerk chicken. (I’m down with the curry and stewed chicken, personally.)

“Americans, especially the ones here, do not want real Caribbean food,” he says. “They have certain tastes. So I give them a little of the spice, a little of the flavor of my country.

“Trinidad and Tobago is a diverse country; we have Chinese, Indian, Hispanic, Negro and whites. Just like our culture, our food has a little of everything.”

As a recent convert, I can attest that Wendell Joseph has the magic touch to render that “little of everything” to suit the taste of someone whose palate has had very little experience outside the Southern realm.

Maybe it was all that “shop local” talk that’s been making the rounds in these parts lately that led me to finally act on the whim and stop in at Caribbean Flavor and try something new in the city. Whatever the reason, I’ve been introduced to some excellent new cuisine and I’ve met some really lovely people in the process. That’s what I call a real win-win.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.