I'm pretty sure that when I first walked into Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Monday the owner thought I was a crazy person.
I arrived positively giddy at the thought of eating Jamaican food at Caribbean Hot Pot, the subject of this week's cafe review. I was exceedingly hungry and excited to show my new friends/dinner companions what I do for a living. I had studied the menu before I left, so I had an idea of what I wanted, but I'm no expert on Caribbean cuisine. I marched up the counter and addressed the man behind it (who turned out to be the owner) with maybe a tad too much enthusiasm for a strip center restaurant on a Monday.
"Hi! I have Caribbean ancestry, and I've never had real Caribbean food before, so I don't know what I want, but I definitely want to get to know the cuisine. What should I get? What's good? I know I want jerk chicken and some sort of fish, but which one should I get? What do you recommend?"
He looked at me like I was an alien.
At that moment I kind of felt like one, only I was the type of alien who couldn't get enough of Earth's awesome bounty, not the kind who wanted to blow it up. I'm not sure which is more annoying to be honest.
After he got over his shock at my forwardness, the owner, Cliff Dalling explained to me (slowly) that fish would not be an option. If I wanted fish, I should have called ahead of time. He then waved me over to the other end of the room, where a half dozen metal chafing pans were built into the counter. They were all behind a short wall of glass and covered with lids, but Dalling lifted the lids and stirred the stews to give me an idea of what I was ordering. Or rather, what I was trying to order.
"Here," he said, lifting out a spoonful of curried goat. "This is the goat. Do you want this? And this one," he said, lifting up the next lid. "This is the oxtail. What do you think?"
Clearly, I had not ordered the way in which Dalling and his staff were accustomed, but he walked me through the menu anyway, taking his time to explain everything to me. With Dalling's help, eventually I was able to arrive at an order that seemed indicative of Jamaican cuisine (sans fish).
The next time I visited, I made sure to call ahead for the red snapper in escovitch sauce. I told the woman who took my order that I would be there around 12:30. When I arrived at 12:35, she asked what had taken me so long, as if the fish had been ready for hours. I've concluded that the fish at Caribbean Hot Pot will always be a contentious mystery. It also happens to be delicious though, so I'd advise not asking too many questions or making demands where the seafood is concerned.
Dalling recognized me on my second visit and came over to chat with the random woman who was so enthusiastic about the fish (and everything else) that she had to come back the next day to make sure she got it. I immediately tried to engage him.
"So, do you eat the eye?" I asked, gesturing to the whole fried fish staring up at me. "Is tasty?"
Finally Dalling's stolid exterior cracked a bit, and he let out a chuckle.
"You can eat it if you want," he said smiling, "but I'm not going to!"
And then, shaking his head, he disappeared into the darkened kitchen and through a back door into the alley behind the restaurant where there is no doubt a small pond full of red snapper, swimming in circles, waiting to be caught.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.