It's unclear exactly which Caribbean island is the Island in Casuelita's Island Soul. There are wall hangings from Jamaica; the restaurant proudly serves Ting ($2), a light and tangy bottled Jamaican grapefruit soda; and one of the restaurant's specialties is Jamaican-style jerk chicken. But they also serve a rummy, sweet Haitian bread pudding ($5.95), and elements of Trinidad and Tobago appear on the menu, too.
But rather than rashly inventing stupid words like "pan-Caribbean," Casuelita's seems to create a kind of nostalgia for one big island that never existed, a kind of Caribbean Pangaea that incorporates the best parts of all the tropical, oceanic cultures of the western hemisphere. The mood in the restaurant is always cheerful and abiding. If a meal is taking a little while in the kitchen, the chef will send out a tray of complimentary appetizers rather than see someone go a minute or two without eating. One recent Saturday night, a steel-drum player regaled patrons with versions of "Part-Time Lover" and "My Way," inspiring some to get up and dance. One Tuesday saw the chef coming out of the kitchen to lead the whole restaurant in a raucous gospel version of "Happy Birthday" for a diner turning 21.
Of course, a restaurant can be the happiest place on earth and still fail because of bad food. Happily, almost everything that Casuelita's serves is delicious. The jerk chicken ($11.95) is among the finest in the city: peppery and juicy and tender. People who are sensitive to heat might want to avoid the jerk dishes—the jerk ribs ($11.95), too, are smoky and fall off the bone if you look at them funny—because there's no namby-pamby five-star heat system like you find in most Thai restaurants. The hot food is hot—not intolerably so, but enough to disconcert the timid and mild.
There are plenty of dishes where heat isn't a concern. The tostones ($7.95), sliced plantains deep-fried in garlic olive oil and served with onions, are garlicky and curiously light for a deep-fried dish. The coconut prawns ($7.95) are fresh jumbo prawns rolled in coconut and fried, served with a sweet fruit sauce, and the delightful Little Islands ($7.95) are small bowls of fried cornbread filled with black beans and topped with feta and avocado. None of these dishes are in the least bit spicy, but they do the appetizer's thankless job—satiating one kind of gnawing hunger while piquing the deeper desire for a meal—exceedingly well.
Beyond the delicious jerk dinners, there are plenty of other types of meat to try: The oxtail dinner ($16.95) is so tender as to be almost a liquid, and a good selection for anyone not in the mood for spiced meat. The curried goat dinner ($14.95) can be a little challenging, though: It's almost impossible to determine the difference between meat and gristle or bone without taking a bite first, resulting in a napkin filled with bits of inedible goat parts.
That's a rare stumble, though. Casuelita's Bayou Gumbo ($16.95) is unlike just about any gumbo I've ever had before. It's gray, for starters, and alongside the prawns, chicken, and hot links, it's thick with crab limbs still in their shells. By the time I had finished pulling crab from the gumbo and stripping it from its shell, my table looked like a war zone, with bits of chitin and meat strewn everywhere and my hands and face covered in soup. Those looking for a diverse mix of food with a slightly neater payoff can try the Island Soul in a Bowl ($15.95), a sampler of goat, jerk chicken, and oxtails.
Just about every meal is served with a side of rice and vegetarian collard greens, and they're wonderful, fresh, and not overpowering. But more importantly, every meal comes with Casuelita's coconut cornbread ($1 for an extra serving), a sweet and moist delight too precious to waste as a sop for the remaining sauce. This cornbread is a unique experience; I've never had anything quite like it.
Casuelita's is by no means fancy. The fluorescent lighting actually makes some of the food look bad—the gray gumbo probably suffers the most here—and despite all the wall hangings, the cramped room still looks painfully dull. But it feels so authentic, such a testament to island life both in flavor and in cheery, laid-back style, that none of those external elements amount to anything more than a trifle.