- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In Jamaica, if somebody says, “let’s go flex,” they’re ready to relax and have some fun. And, that’s the vibe Linval Topey and Yao Hevi want to prevail in the Caribbean restaurant they opened earlier this month in San Souci Plaza.
Opening Flex Island Jamaican Grill was Hevi’s dream. But the marriage of allspice, ginger and curry wafting through the air are signs of Topey’s love affair with the kitchen. The recipes are his creation. “Everybody works for money,” said Topey, whose accent suggests he carries a part of his native Jamaica with him. “I like money, but I love cookin.’”
By Wednesday afternoon, he’d made griddles full of jerk chicken, a pot of brown-stewed chicken, some curried goat and ox tails. In the back of the restaurant, he pointed out juices — of carrots, or pineapple and ginger, and another with watermelon — Topey said he’d made to complement the food. When customers come inside, he said, he wants them to feel like they’re on the Caribbean island.
From a Mexican restaurant in Charlotte Hall, to Greek food in St. Mary’s Square, French in Leonardtown and Thai and Japanese in San Souci, people here can feel like they’ve done a bit of traveling, without leaving the county. And, if they’d rather try something different at home, Latin American and Asian markets now dot the corners of Great Mills Road.
“Certainly, we’ve seen an increase in ethnic food restaurants from the 1990s through the 2000s,” said Robin Finnacom, St. Mary’s County acting director of economic and community development. Maybe it’s a reflection of the diversity brought here by Patuxent River Naval Air Station, she said. But, it seems more residents have been around the world and are now living here. “People who are used to traveling, they are looking for something out of the ordinary,” she said.
“We want them to experience real Indian cuisine,” said Raj Kaushal, at Bollywood Masala. Spice markets in his home country of India can be brimming with hundreds of choices from vendors as far as the eyes can see. And so the family at Bollywood brings that spirit to their dishes, some full of spice but not heat, some with sweetness or a carefully chosen measure of salt, others as hot as the customer wants them to be.
“It’s a totally different style,” Kaushal said.
The restaurant, he said, never hires experienced cooks. “We train them,” he said. “We just want a clean paper, and only we can write on it.” They need to understand how spices interact with each other. And, Kaushal said, the flavors must be added at different times for each dish. Temperatures are adjusted as chefs create each meal, he said, remembering his mother, who could cook five dishes on one burner, one pot stacked atop the other with the one requiring the most heat closest to the fire. She would be doing housework in the meantime, Kaushal said, and would call out to his sister when it was time to remove a dish from the flame.
His wife, Mona, who helps run the restaurant, has a similar gift for understanding food, he said. “She still surprises me. All the time. She will just come up with a dish.”
“This is one of the only places we come into town to go to,” said Jessica Flynn of Piney Point. She, her husband and son were having dinner there Wednesday.
“There didn’t used to be a lot of international restaurants in St. Mary’s County,” said Paul Flynn, who was at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the 1990s. The food, “makes you do a little happy dance,” he said, joking with his wife.
“It can take a terrible day and turn it into a better experience,” Jessica said. “The smell of the curry, or the cardamom, it just puts you in a great mood.”
“I enjoy the people that I meet,” said Nena Cherra, at Nimfa & Nema’s Oriental Market and Carry-Out in Great Mills. They come from all over the county, wanting to try her beef or shrimp lumpia — little spring rolls filled with meat and veggies, dipped in a sweet and spicy sauce. “Some people say, ‘I’ve never even heard of a lumpia,’” she said. But she offers them a taste, “and, they like it.”
Cherra’s dishes — grilled and barbecued, stewed and fried — are from scratch, influenced by her time in Hawaii and her native Philippines, where she was a girl selling banana fritters to customers on the streets. “I worked so hard,” she said.
Today, her grocery store is filled with items where adventurous customers can sample a few things on their own.
“People are looking for something fresh,” she said. “If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough to serve.”