Casuelita's captures the soul of island cuisine

Greetings always warm when you step into Casuelita's Island Soul, a small gem of a restaurant in the Judkins Park neighborhood just north of I-90 between 23rd Avenue S. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

James Perry, manager of the restaurant and brother of co-owner Theo Martin, greets everyone who enters with a bright smile.

"We want to make a difference. We want to share with our community," said the kinetic Perry who clearly takes pride in the family business. "People don't always know what island cooking is. They often ask, 'Is your food hot and spicy? Will it burn me?'"

While soft Caribbean rhythms played in the background, Perry introduced his chef, Bobby Laing. Soft-spoken as Perry is lively, Jamaica-born Laing came to Seattle in 2002 via Indiana. "Indiana was a bit too cold for me" Laing said "and my auntie in Bellevue invited me to come to the Seattle area".

Through his aunt, Laing was introduced to Richard Dwyer, the other co-owner of Casuelita's Island Soul and sole owner of the sister restaurant Casuelita's Caribbean Cafe' on Vine Street in Seattle.

"Richard was looking for a chef who could prepare authentic Jamaican food," Laing related. "He wanted someone to perfect the Jamaican items on his menu."

Laing has been cooking since age 12. He got his culinary start assisting in an older brother's restaurant in Jamaica.

"I am from a big family, said Laing. "Cooking was a part of our family life."

Laing went to work for Dwyer at Casuelita's Caribbean Cafe and met Perry who was already working there.

"We hit if off right away," Perry said. "We enjoyed working together from the start."

Wanting to expand in south Seattle, Dwyer and Martin looked for a site, and Perry and Laing were the obvious choice to head up the team at the new location.

When a nest-sized restaurant space became available in Judkins Park with a bright, south-facing view, Dwyer and Martin snapped it up. The "James and Bobby Show" opened this past April and hasn't missed a beat since. White walls above the wainscoting show off a panoply of island-inspired art from both local and Caribbean painters, carvers and metal workers, much of which is for sale. Warm tangerine tones enliven the lower portion of the room. The restaurant's relaxed but professional service brings continuity and warmth to the dining room.

And the food?

"Jamaica is a vibrant mix of cultures. We are a people from all over the world. We have people from India, China, Africa, Portugal, Spain, Japan, native Carib Indians, and, of course, we were colonized for a long time by the British," Laing stated emphatically. "This is all reflected in our food."

The magazine-perfect presentation is impressive for such a small restaurant. Laing noted that everything, except the luscious dessert cakes, is prepared right on the spot in a small but efficient kitchen at the rear of the room.

"We have our own smoker for the smoked chicken and ribs we do for our barbecue items on the dinner menu, " Laing said.

Portions are generous, and one rainy evening I was happy with a light supper of Casuelita's to-die-for coconut corn bread muffins and a fresh house salad with spicy homemade dressing. We enjoyed crisp tostones made from green plantains twice fried in a little butter and finished with garlic and salt for an appetizer.

My husband dove happily into a big platter of red snapper island-style fillet dinner. Crisp but not greasy on the outside this perfectly fried fillet was moist on the inside, its subtle flavor enhanced by the crunchy skin.

Lemon-lime juice goes in to season the fish during frying, bringing out the snapper flavor. An escovitch sauce and dark collard greens completed the platter.

"We use very little oil and fat here," Perry said while pointing out that some items are fried in a way so that they are never greasy. "We want to serve both delicious and healthful food."

Tamal Azteca is a rich lasagna-inspired dinner for vegetarians. Made with corn tortillas and a melange of roasted vegetables, feta and other cheeses, it's finished of with a chipotle tomato sauce. Wow!

An old favorite, curried goat with basmati rice, a straight shot from Indian cuisine exemplifies the variety in Caribbean cookery. Curried chicken, jerk chicken and jerk ribs are also on this menu.

A nod to many Seattleites with Louisiana roots is the ever-popular bayou gumbo. Prawns, snapper, smoked chicken, beef hot links and crab are served with rice. Crackers or cornbread fill out this item as well as the house salad. This one is a favorite according to the two men.

Chilled fruit juices complement the spice and flavor of the foods here. These premium-quality 'Jumex' brand juices come in many tropical flavors including coconut, mango and peach. Soft drinks, diet and regular round out the beverage service along with coffee and tea, both hot and cold.

One item, which intrigued me, was the oxtail dinner, since the menu states that it was "An old neighborhood favorite of Ms. Leonard."

"She was one of the original proprietors in this building," Perry explained. "This little spot has been a restaurant for a long time. In fact I believe that a barbecue shop was in here previously."

Casuelita's Island Soul is open for business from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 2608 S. Judkins St. Street parking is available nearby. Call 329-1202 for more information.

Georgia Lord Wantanabe may be reached via

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