Fritz-Gerald Esperance grew up in Haiti, came to America as part of a singing group, attended the University of Kansas, and learned something about American food.
“I started eating American food, and I gained 30 pounds in a few months,” Esperance said.
Indeed, immigrants often don’t read the fine print. America: Land of the free, home of the brave (and capital of the elastic waistband). Esperance began making and eating Haitian-style food again, and now, years later, he’s opened a Haitian restaurant in Lawrence.
Taste of Haiti opened earlier this year at 925 Iowa St., but opened a bit quietly. It mainly has been serving food to customers at Empire Billiards, which is next door to the restaurant. But Taste of Haiti has its own dining room and entrance for people who don’t want to go to a pool hall to eat their Haitian cuisine.
Or maybe you do want to eat Haitian cuisine in a pool hall. Or maybe you already have been eating Haitian cuisine and don’t know. I’m guessing many Lawrence residents aren’t familiar with the style of food.
You’ve probably had one dish: Beans and rice. You may think of that more as Cajun/New Orleans fare, but where do you think the New Orleans cooks came from?
“People sometimes think we must be a New Orleans or Cajun style of restaurant, but Haiti is the source of many of those recipes,” said Barbara Guster, who is a co-owner of the restaurant. “But New Orleans changed the recipes.”
For example, many of the New Orleans dishes feature red beans and dirty rice. Taste of Haiti serves an “island rice” that is black beans and white rice. Another of its unique side dishes is something called “pikliz.” That’s a spicy coleslaw that includes pickled cabbage, several varieties of peppers, some garlic and onion and lots of white vinegar.
Esperance said one of the restaurant’s signature dishes is plantains with pikliz. Esperance said plantains are a big part of Haitian cooking. So, too, is seafood. The restaurant features both red snapper and shrimp, and not the frozen kind. The restaurant uses Gulf Coast shrimp and the red snapper is the type of fish that stares back at you, i.e. it is served with its head on.
The restaurant also has a dish called crescents, which I’m assured is not a creation of the Pillsbury Doughboy. (The doughboy should give immigrants a clue about American food. He is not slim.) Instead, these crescents are a Caribbean patty type of dish. Taste of Haiti has some that are spiced beef, some that are curry chicken and some that are vegetable. Look for some other authentic dishes soon. The restaurant is working on finding a supplier for fresh goat, which also is a staple in Haitian food.
In addition to the Haitian food, the restaurant does have a lot of American bar food type of dishes on its menu, given that a good amount of its business currently comes from the pool hall next door.
Esperance, though, does hope that the restaurant helps Lawrence residents understand Haiti a bit better. He hopes to get more Haiti artwork in the restaurant and just be a resource for the island nation, which suffers more than its fair share of natural disasters. Esperance called the island “earthquake friendly.” He estimated that he felt about four earthquakes a year when he lived in the country.
The restaurant is open from noon to midnight most days. It is a bit difficult to find. It is not in the main part of the Hillcrest Shopping Center, but rather is on the northern edge of the center, basically behind The Merc.