I Would Walk 5 (Hundred?) Miles... for This Roti
A nostalgic craving for the West Indian specialty takes one writer on a tasty trek through Roxbury.
We all have those indelible first-time food memories, when you eat a dish so unlike anything you’ve had before it becomes a core memory. Eating roti was a game changer for me, a white kid living in sub-shop dominated West Roxbury. Roti is a West Indian street food consisting of flatbread overstuffed with curried meat, potatoes and vegetables, best eaten with your hands. It’s sort of like a burrito. Except that roti laughs at your burrito because it looks like a burrito that ate a burrito.
My first roti came well over ten years ago in Roslindale Village, of all places. I was hanging out on Poplar Street with my older brother Shefa, an iconoclastic world traveler. My brother has always been an adventurous eater with an affinity for goat so he was thrilled to spot the newly opened Ali’s Roti Restaurant. We tore into our rotis like starving movie orphans eating dinner in a billionaire’s penthouse. Shortly after this meal, my brother went off to do cartography in Guyana and I went to university. By the time I’d graduated, Ali’s in Roslindale had closed. I knew there were other locations but they were in neighborhoods outside my purview, and despite the warm feelings I had toward the dish, I didn’t have the moxie to seek them out.
So I must be feeling sentimental today because I’ve got it in my head that nothing will come between me and my roti. And hey, it’s Monday. It’s not like I have anything better to do, so I might as well try to get back that loving feeling. “This should be easy enough,” I say to no one. I’ll take the T to Ruggles Station and be at Ali’s within the hour. I pack a bag full of comic books and bottled water and set course for Roxbury.
Unfortunately, desire can't overcome poor planning. I arrive at Ali’s on Tremont Street and give a tug on the door. It doesn’t budge. I tug again. The door is steadfast, and now I see the posted hours that read 'closed Monday and Tuesday.' I’m near tears, but I know what needs to be done. There’s another Ali’s location. It’s five miles south of here and I’ll have to walk the length of Roxbury to get there. But there’s no quit in me and I won’t stop until I do. Well, unless I get hungry.
I get hungry after about four blocks, so I stop at Haley House Bakery Café in booming Dudley Square. The sign on the door says 'Welcome Friends,' setting the tone for this inviting café, which smells of coffee and fresh baked goods. There’s a decent crowd here; some clients clack on laptops while others take a moment away from work to recharge—the way people did before coffee shops turned into informal co-working spaces. Two women in the corner share personal stories and a prayer. I glance at the menu and order a jerk chicken grilled cheese on whole wheat. The meat is coated in sauce, spiced but not spicy; the side of ginger slaw provides crunchy contrast.
The café is only one part of the benevolent Haley House machine, which provides many social services. Since opening in 1966 as a homeless shelter, the non-profit has had its hands in all manner of do-goodery, including a soup kitchen, urban farming, and affordable housing. The café itself offers vocational training and jobs for those in need of a second chance. People here are doing important work.
I am not one of those people, but I have set a roti-related intention for the day, and I need to get back on track. I think the track must be broken because I’ve taken a wrong turn. Using keen navigational skill (Google Maps), I realize I’ve headed west, toward Roxbury Crossing. Creating opportunity from circuity, I pop over to Ashur, a halal Somali restaurant near the Islamic Society of Boston. Ashur feels more like an African social club than a restaurant, as men sit at plastic covered tables, sipping coffee and watching the Premier League. Giant “sports plates” with meat on the bone and rice come out of the kitchen, and it’s perfectly acceptable to eat them with your hands. I haven’t lost sight of my roti-goals (#rotigoals2016), so I keep things light with a plate of chicken biryani; rice and vegetables mixed with hunks of browned chicken breast, which I douse in white garlic sauce. I’d love to hang here with the fellas and catch the second half of Manchester United and Newcastle, but I still have about four miles to walk and the sun’s already setting.
According to the direction of my shadow, which blocks the glare on my phone, I’ve determined that I need to head south on Blue Hill Avenue, a long stretch of road cutting down Roxbury’s center line. After two miles on the street, I’m famished. I need to get rice and beans into my system stat. None of the eateries interest me, until I walk by a tiny takeout spot called La Cuchara. A hair-netted woman stands behind the display counter serving overflowing portions of rice and stewed meat to construction workers. Behind her, an older woman cooks over a stove while steaming containers line her prep table. She never looks at me. The woman at the counter speaks no English, so she tells me the options in Spanish. I may be an idiot with a backpack full of comic books, but I’m multilingual when it comes to food. I request a plate of dirty rice and stewed chicken on the bone. The rice is rich and springy, and I can’t believe how tender the chicken is. This is the dose of comfort food I need to keep going.
A funny thing about La Cuchara: aside from a Google listing which navigates to the website of a La Cuchara in Chicago, it has zero web presence. I can’t find any mentions or reviews anywhere. It’s as if the internet doesn’t know this place exists. And if the internet’s not aware, how can I be sure any of this is real? Filled with existential panic, I compliment the chef - who may be a figment of my imagination – and head out for the final two miles of my pilgrimage.
About a mile past the Franklin Park Zoo, I arrive at Ali’s. I’ve walked so far, I’m technically in Mattapan. But I can see Roxbury from here, so I’m counting it. I chat briefly with the friendly staff about my journey and their old Roslindale location, but I don’t have much time for small talk. I’m starving. I get my roti with curried goat, potatoes, cabbage, and chickpeas loosely wrapped in flatbread (also known as roti), which is folded in towards the center like a giant, overflowing soup dumpling you wouldn’t dare seal shut. I rip off pieces of bread, using it to pinch the filling between my fingers and shovel it into my mouth, being careful not to crack a tooth on the bones. The curry is top-of-the-mouth spicy, not back-of-the-throat spicy, which is just enough to warm me up as saffron-yellow stains form along my cuticles and potato sticks to my beard.
I’m so satisfied I barely remember midday’s heartbreak. But I also realize my obsession with roti hasn’t allowed me to really appreciate the neighborhood. Growing up, I was told not to come to this part of town—that it wasn’t safe. Now, I can't help feeling regret for not exploring this neighborhood sooner. After suffering decades of institutionalized neglect, Boston’s developmental creep is making its way to Roxbury, and it’s hard to say what shape it will take in the coming years. I just hope there will still be room for roti shops and hidden takeout counters in the next decade. For the moment, I’m grateful to have reconnected with a happy food memory — something Roxburyians and West Roxburyians and just about everyone else can relate to — even if I worked harder than expected to get here. I may not be a world traveller like my brother, but I don’t think even he has walked five miles for a roti.
Haley House Bakery Café, 12 Dade St., Roxbury, 617.445.0900, haleyhouse.org
Ali’s Roti Restaurant, 1035 Tremont St., Roxbury, 617.427.1079
Ashur Restaurant, 291 Roxbury St., Roxbury, 617.427.0599
La Cuchara, 381 Blue Hill Ave., Roxbury, 617.445.7500