I like to think of myself as someone who is very passionate about food and what I do, that was until I met Caroline. To meet her I had to travel to the city of San Pedro on the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye in the country of Belize.
(You can read the first instalment of our trip to Ambergris Caye here.)
This story begins with a search for conch fritters: One of my most favourite foods, but also one that has been years since I last ate. Of course when traveling and wanting authentic local food we must consult with a local. We inquired at our hotel and our super friendly concierge directed us to Caroline’s Cookin’ located on Coconut Drive and right across from the island’s airstrip. This street is small and narrow but bustling with golf cart traffic — the preferred mode of transpiration in San Pedro. As we walked up to Caroline’s place we found ourselves outside of a very charismatic and typical Caribbean style building. The building and signs are a bright yellow with green, black and red lettering. We make our way inside to find a large teal coloured room decorated with gorgeous tropical and Mayan art, decorative bottles, a large model ship, dinning tables, a large bar and additional seating to the left side of the restaurant. Everything is spotlessly clean and in order. Softly smooth reggae music plays at just the right volume.
Immediately a friendly woman welcomes us and quickly brings us menus. My husband inquires about the conch fritters to which our waitress responds that she will get them started for us straight away. She quickly comes back and explains that everything is cooked from scratch at Caroline’s Cookin’. Good food takes time to prepare. She goes on to say that the food at this establishment is cooked to order and so it may take longer than what we’re accustomed to. The energetic and effervescent woman goes on to explain how good conch fritters need to be tenderised, mixed with the spices and additional ingredients and most importantly need to be given time to rest so they don’t become greasy when fried. She attentively answers more of our questions before we finally decide on our dinner order.
Caroline standing by her restaurant’s sign
The (dinner) menu is a mix of Belizean, Mexican/Mayan, Caribbean and Indian dishes. I choose the jerk shrimp made medium spicy and hubby went with the jerk chicken made extra, extra spicy. The waitress assured my husband that it would be spicy. Within moments of placing our orders for the main dinner course our conch fritters arrived. The enticing smell wafted around our section of the dinning room. The fritters were light and not greasy at all, they were served with a silky brown sauce in the centre of the plate. We enthusiastically cut into the first conch fritters which reveals a sprinkling of conch pieces and colourful bits of vegetables. The first bite make my senses explode. The taste was as good…no, even better than I remember conch fritters tasting. The conch was tender and cooked to perfection. I’m not sure as to all of the ingredients used, but what I am sure of is that these fritters are perfect. The flavours are simple but somehow fill your tastebuds with a complex mix of tastes. The second bite I dipped into the sauce that was provided, it turns out to be a spicy-sweet curry flavoured sauce. Though one might not think of pairing these two items together , the curry sauce compliments the conch fritters perfectly! After the second bite our friendly waitress comes by to check on us — she even places an extra fan nearby to help us beat the tropical heat. My husband tells her that these are by far the best conch fritters we’ve ever had. With a large and proud smile she thanks us.
Throughout our feasting of conch fritters we are chatted up by the energetic waitress. She passionately talks about the fresh local ingredients used in the restaurant, how the drinks are made, how much effort the whole staff puts into their jobs and about the beautiful island of Ambergris Caye. It turns out that this friendly woman is Caroline herself, the owner of the establishment. Caroline somehow manages to entertain her guests, attentively keep an eye on all of the tables, prepare drinks (many with fresh fruit juice that she prepares herself upon each order), serve orders as soon as the kitchen bell rings, and exude her passion for food and her business. Every single person in the restaurant was under Caroline’s spell and couldn’t help but keep smiling and listening to every word that she spoke. As I looked around I could hear people commenting about how delicious their meals were and how charismatic Caroline is.
I’m not sure how long the wait for our main dishes was (really don’t think it was too long), besides with a host like Caroline time passes by quite quickly. As our dinner plates are set on the table, again the smells are alluring to our noses and taste buds. The plates are nicely presented with jerk chicken on hubby’s and jerk shrimp on mine. We were given a choice of sides and we both chose traditional Belizean coconut rice and beans, steamed veggies — which Caroline explained she selected earlier that day and prepared herself. To give the meal a touch of sweetness a juicy slice of watermelon is provided because it is Caroline’s favourite fruit. My jerk shrimp is tender and exploding with an exotic mix of spices. There are spicy tones mixed with jerk spices and the sauce perfectly captures the dish’s flavours. My husband was not disappointed with his extra, extra spicy jerk chicken. I took a bite of his and even though it was a bit too spicy for me, I was pleasantly surprise that the tender chicken was not only picante but also had the same exotic flavours that my medium dish had. The vegetables were steamed to perfection and tasted wonderful with the jerk sauce. As for the Beliziean coconut rice and beans, one could not imagine rice and beans tasting as delicious as they do at Caroline’s. Dinner was a huge hit across the restaurant and many proclaimed that they’d be back the following day.
The next morning, bright and early, Caroline and her staff were already hard at work serving the breakfast crowd. We stopped by for a traditional Belizean breakfast and again this morning we were warmly welcomed by Caroline and her staff. Caroline suggested we start with one of her freshly prepared pineapple juices. It was a fantastic alternative to orange juice and a great way to start the day. Even at this early hour Caroline is filled with the same enthusiasm and charisma as the night before. As we wait for our breakfast we chat with her about her heritage: She is Belizean born and has Jamaican and Indian blood. Her exotic culture mix, of course, explains the range of dishes that can be found on her menus. The Belizian breakfast consist of eggs, refried beans, plantains, fresh fruit, a puffy bread called fry jacks and strawberry jelly to dip the bread in. Everything on the plate was delicious, but for me the star were the fry jacks. I’ve never had a bread that started out similar to a flour tortilla, is deep fried so it puffs up, isn’t greasy and tastes a bit tangy. Dipping the warm pieces into the jelly made it that much more delicious. I’m sure our fellow diners would agree that this was another delicious, filling and enjoyable meal at Caroline’s Cookin’.
On our last night we returned for one last taste of Caroline’s cooking. As promised, Caroline prepares for us her famous rum punch. The drink takes a few minutes to prepare because Caroline hand squeezes the necessary fruit juices. It is a nice presentation but what will blow you away is the flavour, which I’m sure has to do with the fact that it’s so fresh. For dinner we ordered another classic Belizean dish and one that is also the national dish. The plate has coconut rice and beans, a creamy coleslaw, plantain and chicken stew. The smells, again, do not disappoint. The stew is tender chicken breasts cooked in a brown sauce that smells amazing. Unfortunately I couldn’t decipher the ingredients that give this stew it’s exotic and comforting flavours. The secret to what makes this dish so scrumptious stays with Caroline. The coconut rice and beans were as flavourful as the previous time, the coleslaw was creamy and great tasting, even the plantains were perfect — I’m not a big fan of them, but the way they are prepared here could turn me into a big fan.
Every meal we ate at Caroline’s left us full and energised for the day’s and night’s activities. We found the portions to be perfect size. If you can’t decide what to eat make sure to ask Caroline for recommendations.
When you make your way to the island of Ambergris Caye you must stop by Caroline’s Cookin’ for at least one of your meals. On our three visits we kept running into the same people, everyone was there for the fantastic food, fresh drinks and for the warm hospitality. We found the Belizean people, like Caroline, to be very kind. Please do remember that good food is slow food. Do not arrive with only one hour before your flight or water taxi departs, leave plenty of time so Caroline and her staff can serve you one of her famous dishes. You must also allow time to listen to Caroline’s Belizean accent; Her words are filled with passion for food, life and her beautiful daughter. Her energy is contagious and you’ll surely want to come back for a second or third meal. I was quite tempted to stay and ask Caroline for a job in hopes of learning her cooking secrets.
The Chef, Caroline and I