Bass-heavy music booms from a parked white Infiniti sedan with custom white rims. A small canteen-style truck with an eye-catching red-and-white checkerboard paint job is parked behind a canopy tent filled with activity. Merlin Garcia assembles Trinidadian doubles onto parchment slices and then scoops up sweet corn and pigtail soup from a warmer into a quart-size styrofoam cup. Piquant Scotch bonnet peppers and deep cardamom aromas waft through the air. A socially distanced queue forms in front of the canopy, while a couple dines at an adjacent table. Sometimes, there’s even a man playing cool tunes on a steel drum, though he’s out of town on this particular evening. Garcia oversees it all with a cheerful, welcoming vibe, ready to explain the cuisine to newcomers. This whole scene happens on Saturday evenings at the parking lot of a South LA tire and auto repair shop closed for business for the day.
On weekdays, Garcia works for the LA public safety department. On Saturdays, however, she’ll traverse LA freeways in her Trinistyle Cuisine truck, bringing food from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago to Southland communities.
Trinidadian food is a remarkable blend of the influences of many different peoples, with Afro-Caribbean and Indian cuisines making the strongest impressions. Indigenous communities on the islands made staples of cassava, cocoa, corn, and pineapple, while European colonizers from several countries instituted crop production and pickling, and indentured servants from India added curries and spices to the cuisine. While Los Angeles has a few Caribbean restaurants, most of which are Jamaican and Belizean places, Trinidadian dishes have been difficult to find. Caribbean Treehouse on Centinela was LA’s most notable Trinidadian restaurant, but it closed in 2015. From that time, until recently, Garcia’s truck has been serving the only Trini fare in Los Angeles.
Switching careers from the corporate to the culinary world, Garcia started Trinistyle in 2014, doing delivery and catering. Word of mouth quickly grew her business. It’s only in the last couple of months that she’s been taking the truck to South LA from her home in Lancaster, where she preps most of the food, and setting up to the public in the lot. That change came after an invitation to a food truck gathering spot in the Ralphs grocery store lot at Manchester and Western. When she began seeking a less crowded spot, Garcia’s friend, an owner of the tire and auto center, offered his lot a few blocks down at Manchester and Van Ness for Saturday evenings. She’s now there every weekend instead of at Ralphs.
Though she’s just recently found a semi-permanent location, Garcia’s menu changes fairly regularly, except for a few iconic staples like roti and soup. Meat choices for the roti range from chicken, goat, curry goat, beef, and shrimp, and Garcia always serves some kind of soup on Saturdays, a tradition in Trinidad. Cow heel soup is the one she’s most likely to have, but on other occasions, beef soup might make an appearance. Some weeks feature corn soup, a classic Trinidadian post-party meal, particularly during Carnival season, when it’s sold by vendors on nearly every corner in Trinidad. To make it, she conjures a filling stock from sweet corn, pigs’ tails, and soft, doughy dumplings made with some added cornmeal. A splash of pepper sauce, made from Scotch bonnet and habanero chiles, provides a layer of heat and enough acidity to cut through the soup’s rich broth, making it the quintessential post-drinking food
Garcia is also proud of her goat roti, the most popular item on her menu. She takes curried chickpeas, potatoes, and goat (or curried goat) and wraps them tightly in a dhalpuri, an Indian-inspired flatbread made by adding ground, boiled split peas, cumin, garlic, and pepper to the dough. Rotis, originally known as wrap roti, are a staple in Trinidad and Tobago’s cuisine, eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a wide variety of fillings. They’re also another stellar example of the presence of Indian flavors and techniques in the cuisine. Garcia’s grandmother was East Indian: “She taught me how to make rotis and everything curry,” she says. Another popular street food Garcia serves is pholourie, fried, seasoned dough balls with ground split peas. Sold from carts in Trinidad, they are accompanied by tangy mango and tamarind chutneys for dipping.
Most of all, Garcia enjoys bringing a taste of Trinidad to both expats and those unfamiliar with the cuisine. Doubles might be the perfect introduction to Trini food. The popular street snack is made of curried chickpeas (channa) on two pieces of plush, fried dough (bara) topped with sauces and cucumber chutney. Garcia says they’re a big hit with customers. “The way I explain it to them, it’s a Caribbean taco, without meat. It seems like the past seven weeks, I’ve had doubles [on the menu] every week because the clientele is growing and people are getting to know what it is and want it,” Garcia says. Doubles have a reputation as the kind of item that’s impossible to order just one of. They’re well-suited to pairing with cold beer, which is how it’s done on the islands, where people sit around and eat doubles while drinking Carib. To eat doubles properly, Garcia says, just take a chunk of the fried dough and use it to scoop up the filling.
Other items appear on the menu with less regularity. The price of oxtails is “outrageous,” Garcia says, so she tends to serve them only occasionally. She makes stewed fish using red snapper or king mackerel (kingfish) even less frequently: “I do fish as many times as I can, but I’m very picky when it comes to fish.” Look for those whenever they pop as specials.
The most distinctive fish item is the bake n shark, which she serves very infrequently but likes to talk about. Incredibly popular in Trinidad, it’s a fried flatbread (the eponymous “bake”) filled with pieces of battered, fried shark meat, topped with a variety of sauces, such as mango or garlic. “It’s an acquired taste; it’s not for everyone,” Garcia says, describing it as a “fishburger.” When she does serve it, she’s definitely the only one in Los Angeles doing so. Making this specialty requires a drive down to the San Pedro fish market in the early Saturday morning hours to purchase the costly shark, often ordered well in advance. Garcia adds: “It’s a real treat when we have it.”
Along with the flavorful food, Trinistyle serves popular Caribbean beverages like ginger/pine, a spicy ginger and pineapple drink; sorrel (hibiscus/jamaica); and mauby, made from bark of colubrina trees blended with spices, such as cinnamon, star anise, cloves, bay leaves, and anise seed. If you ask nicely, they might even offer Carib, a refreshing malty light beer that is the national brew of Trinidad and Tobago.
Asked how her business was faring during the pandemic, Garcia said that it has grown: The health crisis “has actually heightened,” Trinistyle’s popularity, with more people are calling in delivery orders than ever before.
Garcia is currently remodeling a larger food truck that she will debut in a few months. The larger, fully equipped truck will allow her to cook on-site, and expand her offerings to include items such as scorpion pepper wings and Trinidadian meat and veggie pies, akin to Jamaican patties — only spicier. She also hopes to start serving on Sundays and to expand her menu with items that change by the day, like the Trini favorite macaroni pie. Despite her growing success, she has no plans for a permanent physical location, citing overhead expenses and the current pandemic-induced economic downturn, adding, “It’s not for me right now.”
“Trini culture is so rare ... it’s a beautiful culture,” Garcia says. “Since the [Caribbean Treehouse] shut down, we have nowhere to go, so I’m very happy to be able to provide some sort of culture to the area.” Angelenos looking for one of the more interesting, and locally rare, cuisines now have just the place to go on Saturdays.
Trinistyle Cuisine, (310) 936-6876 . The truck can be found at Manchester at Van Ness on Saturdays after 5 p.m., but call ahead to confirm location and check on that week’s menu.
- All Dining on a Dime [ELA]