The Long Debut — What’s it like to open a restaurant in a pandemic? Tales of delay, delirium and deliverance from Lafayette’s newest dining establishments. This is the third in a three-part series.
Merick Chambers was out of a job, almost broke, and a long way from home. The Jamaican immigrant, living in Eunice, had just gotten word that he wouldn’t be able to return to work offshore due to a hangup with his visa. Sit tight, he was told. After another two weeks, with $20 left to his name, he hustled together a plan to stay afloat. He had a graphic designer friend back home in Manchester draft a sheet of food tickets for homemade Jamaican plate lunches — customer’s choice of curried chicken with coconut rice and peas or jerk chicken pasta with festival, a Caribbean dumpling. He enlisted his friend and fellow Jamaican immigrant Bobby Marshall to help him organize and spread the word. With his last $20, he printed the tickets at a local shop to peddle in advance. Before he knew it, all 100 plates were sold out. On the day of the lunch pickup, Chambers and Marshall even had to cook more food for cash sales to the latecomers.
Di Jerk Stop was born. “It was a hit,” Chambers recalls. “It was all word of mouth. Di Jerk Stop has been word of mouth forever.” From its Eunice barbecue shack beginnings in 2016, Di Jerk Stop’s grassroots operation has overcome a five-year odyssey that included a stop inside the Youngsville Chevron on Bonin Road, a brief closure, then a rebirth at the Acadiana Food Hub in North Lafayette, followed by a yearlong residency at The Wurst Biergarten Downtown. Now, Chambers and Marshall are stepping into their first stand-alone brick and mortar location on Johnston Street in the former Peking Gardens, where they intend to make a more permanent home.
Slated to open next month, the business committed to a three-year lease in the building. The business partners’ journey, while unique, is representative of a string of next generation immigrant restaurateurs defying the pandemic and taking a leap of faith to more established addresses in the Lafayette dining scene. Buoyed by the growing, and many argue still underrepresented, immigrant communities in Acadiana, and driven by word of mouth affirmation, these businesses provide not only hot meals, but also a communal setting for many newcomers and foreign migrant workers outside Lafayette’s mainstream social circles.
“I came here and I saw all the Latin population and I knew I wanted to open something,” says Benjamin Briones. “There was no one here doing food like from where I’m from, around Mexico City.” Briones hails from Puebla, Mexico, where he began working at age 10 at his father’s eponymous Taqueria Veny. In December, he took his Taqueria El Mexicano from foodtruck to storefront at 110 Mimosa Place, just off Johnston Street, with local partner Rob Caruso. It’s a similar story for Dunia Lopez, of Honduras, who just opened Lafayette’s first tortilleria, Tortilleria La Sinai, in the Johnston Street shopping center fronted by Baskin-Robbins. Selling fresh tortillas by the pound, and house-made chips and salsas, Lopez saw an opportunity before relocating here from Houston. Previously, when she would visit Lafayette, her friends would have her bring over ice chests full of tortillas, still warm from the oven. While in town, she would restock her ice chests with crawfish, which are more expensive in Texas, before returning home. “In Houston, there’s tortillerias everywhere,” she says, “and there wasn’t one here.” (By the end of March, Lopez plans to begin offering breakfast tacos in the morning hours).
Next door to Lopez’s tortilleria is another new tenant to the shopping center, Priya’s Indian Food. The center, which also includes Mae Sone Noodle House, Wat Phou Asian Market and El Malecon Seafood & Grill, could be marketed as a local international food court.
For the past four years, Priya Joseph, who was among the first vendors at the Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market at Moncus Park when it launched in 2015, has built a devoted following. When the pandemic shut down both the market and many restaurants last year, she made weekly house call deliveries to her regular customers. Reserved, Joseph maintains a humble demeanor, all the while cultivating her menu and refining her approach. She’s adopted local produce, supporting fellow vendors at the market, and eco-friendly packaging. She’s also become known for hearty vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, even experimenting with soy meat alternatives to produce specials like a remarkable vegan “chickn” tikka masala.
Despite the pandemic’s grip on the economy, when the space on Johnston Street became available last year, Joseph didn’t hesitate. “People here have shown me so much love,” she says, “and always kept asking me, ‘When are you opening? When are you opening?’ So that actually made my dream to open a restaurant one day.”
At her new shop, she works diligently behind a cinched burlap curtain that separates the kitchen from the ordering counter, allowing her a window to keep up with visiting customers.
Hailing from Guntur in South India, a region known as one of the world’s premier cultivators of chile varieties and spices, Priya learned traditional Indian fare from her grandmother. She began cooking in earnest after arriving in Lafayette six years ago and finding limited options to appease a yearning for the flavors she grew up with. She’s mastered the South Indian staple biryani, the buttery, delicately spiced rice that accompanies many of her curried plate lunches. Later this month, Priya’s will begin dinner hours. For now, it remains closed on Saturdays, so as to maintain a presence at the farmer’s market. [The restaurant] has been my dream,” Joseph says. “There are so many things behind me now that lead to me having my own place, that lead me to be here.”
Bringing an authentic taste of home to Lafayette is also the mission behind other new immigrant-lead restaurants. At Taqueria El Mexicano, the shrimp tacos come with slivers of grilled cactus and generous slices of fresh avocado; the micheladas come with wheels of fresh cucumbers and your choice of mango or tamarind chamoy sauce along the rim of the glass. Here, the in-house cantina is becoming a popular spot for local hispanics to gather and watch soccer matches, and even American football, as evidenced by the sizable crowd who turned up for the recent Super Bowl.
Back at Di Jerk Stop, chef Bobby Marshall has been perfecting recipes for his new menu as well as retail items the restaurant will offer. All-purpose jerk seasoning, hot sauce, spicy mango sauce and Jamaican sorrel, a hibiscus-ginger sauce, are just some of the Caribbean condiments he has already begun to package and sell. “It’s the passion I have for it,” Marshall says. “Some people be sleeping. I’ll be up doing stuff like blending seasonings.”
Already used to working 16-hour days in the oilfield, Marshall says it’s been an easy transition to work just as hard for himself doing what he loves. He’s also been living off of savings in the effort to get the business established. “I believe in it,” he says. “I’m making the sacrifice to get it up and running.”
In some ways, Marshall has been prepping for this day since he was 10 years old. That’s when he began working as a kid in Jamaica, accompanying his uncle to the market to sell vegetables on the weekend. Coming to America in his 20s to work in the oilfield increased the longing for his hometown cuisine and dedication to re-creating it from scratch. Along with Di Jerk Stop, Marshall attracted a following by catering local parties and events. With three brothers and several cousins in the area, Marshall became the first of his family here to step away from the oilfield; he has been devoting himself full time to Di Jerk Stop for the past year. “It was very scary,” says Marshall, also a father to one son. “I have a lot of responsibilities. You wonder always, is this gonna work out? Am I gonna be making money quick enough to take care of bills?”
Now taking over a building that has only ever housed Peking Gardens — a restaurant dating back almost 50 years in Lafayette — the makeover is underway. Fresh white tiles stripe the blue ceiling where hibachi grill hoods used to be mounted. The paneled walls are freshly painted bright Jamaican green and orange. A back room behind the bar, wallpapered with green and gold fluorescent hand prints, is being converted into a gaming area with a pool table. For the bar, plans include a menu of rum punch and a selection of imported island beverages. “A restaurant in Jamaica, you’d have a setup like this,” explains Chambers. “You have food, the bar, and you always have music. It’s just the vibe of Jamaica. What we’re trying to do is bring the same vibe.” (Chambers says the restaurant plans to eventually host a karaoke night and possibly live music.)
Stepping into their spacious new home is a big step for the two entrepreneurs, who’ve come a long way from their Eunice bbq stand. “It’s going to be a new adventure,” Marshall says, “but guess what, I’m prepared. With my love for cooking, I’ll take on anything.”