Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Gastronomy of Hopkins, Belize - Restaurant Reviews

If you've been reading my reports about our trip to Belize in October, you'll recall that we stayed in the village of Hopkins, on the central coast of Belize about 2 1/2 hours south of Belize City by road.  It's a small garifuna village of about 1,500 people, but there's a surprising variety of small restaurants and cafes in the village.  Unfortunately, many of these were closed since it was the off-season, but we did have the opportunity to try two local joints - one serving garifuna cuisine, the other serving more traditional Belizean cuisine - while we were there, along with the restaurant at our hotel, the Jaguar Reef Lodge.  Hungry yet?  See the details after the jump.

First, a reminder of my proprietary restaurant rating system:

5 - I Would Walk 500 Miles (And I Would Walk 500 More) to visit this place
4 - Worth a visit when in town
3 - Meh; I won't object if a friend suggests it, but I wouldn't recommend it on my own
2 - Only if nothing else is open
1 - Run, Sriram, Run!

Innies Restaurant

On the main street on the south end of Hopkins village
Open Monday - Saturday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; breakfast only on Sunday
No website, but they do have a Facebook page
CAUTION:  no credit cards accepted

Innies has apparently been around a very long time, and according to at least a couple of people we talked to, the place to go if you want to try authentic garifuna cuisine.  To that end, Innies specializes in dishes like hudutu (fish filets cooked in coconut milk with mashed plantains) and bundiga (fish served with plantain and coconut gravy).  If that's too exotic, they also have more normal Belizean dishes like stew chicken I normally don't eat fish, but on this day, I figured that since I came all the way to a garifuna village in Belize, I might as well sample their cuisine, so both my wife and I ordered the hudutu.
The fish was really tender, and didn't have an overly "fishy" taste or smell - which was a big positive considering I don't eat fish very much.  I was actually surprised to find that the coconut milk curry, while flavorful, wasn't spicy at all; this being a variety of Caribbean food, I expected that it would bring the heat.  A couple of spoonfuls of Marie Sharp's (the local version of Tabasco sauce) did the trick, though.  The curry was also an ideal dipping sauce for the mashed plantain, which didn't have much taste by itself.  Overall, I'd have to call it a satisfying meal - especially since the hudutu was the most expensive thing on the menu, and the bill for the both of us came out to $17.  Better yet, the service is friendly and inviting, and our waiter (I have to assume some relation to the restaurant's owner) was more than happy to come chat and give us suggestions of things to see and do in the area.

Rating:  4 stars

The next day, after touring nearby Dangriga in the morning, we headed back to Hopkins to have lunch at...

Iris' Sunnyside Up

On the main road on the south end of Hopkins village
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner except Tuesdays
No website, but they do have a Facebook page
CAUTION:  no credit cards accepted

"Iris'" is no longer run by "Iris", who apparently used to operate a garifuna restaurant from this building.  In fact, if you do a Google search of restaurants in Hopkins, you'll very likely come across an ad for the "old" Iris restaurant.  The "new" Iris' is actually run by a South African woman, serving more typical Belizean cuisine.  The restaurant is definitely a throwback to a quieter time, with a chalkboard menu which changes daily, and handful of tables on the outdoor patio.  I ordered the chicken burritos, and my wife had the roasted chicken with rice and beans.

I'm normally skeptical of Mexican food outside of, well, Texas or Mexico, but these burritos were pretty good.  The chicken was well-seasoned, the cheese and salad were fresh, and the lightly-fried tortilla gave them a pleasant crunch.  The salsa was moderately spicy, my only complaint being that it had a slightly chalky taste.  My wife enjoyed her chicken, commenting that it was tender and juicy, but she wasn't a fan of the rice and beans.  She said the rice in particular was undercooked - and there's few things more irritating than crunchy rice.  The new owner is a friendly and talkative host, and we spent a good part of our lunch talking about South Africa!  We came to find out she also has two cats, one of which apparently saw the neon "SUCKER" sign on my forehead and decided to beg for scraps.

On our way to the jaguar reserve the next morning, we stopped back in for breakfast, and both of us ordered French toast.  Iris' version of French toast is interesting - they stick a sweet plantain spread on the slices - but it is DELICIOUS.  I'd go back just for that.

Iris' is a little more expensive than Innies' next door, but still not too bad - $20-25 for two people including coffee/soft drinks, and she does provide large portions.

Rating:  4 stars

That finally brings us to...

Jaguar Reef Lodge Restaurant

Sittee River Road, south of the main Hopkins village
Open daily, 6:30 A.M.-9 P.M.

The restaurant at the Jaguar Reef doubles as the restaurant for the Almond Beach Resort next door.  The setting is awesome; it's an open-air facility with the beach just a few feet away (grab a window table if you can for an ocean view).  While designed for hotel guests, obviously, the restaurant is open to the public, assuming you can find a way to get there.  We went for dinner two nights - our second and fourth nights of our trip.  Unfortunately, the pictures I took on our second night didn't come out, so I'll have to make do with a photo of our fourth night dinner.

Anyway, on our first visit, I had the tomato basil soup and the jerk chicken (a Jamaican dish), and my wife had the coconut curry shrimp.  The soup was good, a little on the bland side but easily fixed with a teaspoon of Marie Sharp's, but the jerk chicken was hit-and-miss.  You get two pieces of chicken.  While both had a nice kick from the jerk seasoning, one piece was deliciously moist and tender, but the second was overcooked and dry, making it difficult to eat.  I tried one of my wife's coconut shrimp, and they tasted about like you would expect coconut shrimp to taste.  She did say, though, that the bed of fettuccine that came with it wasn't very good.  More disappointing was the service.  Our waiter, while nice enough, was extremely slow, and we had to motion him over several times for water refills.  You pay U.S. prices here, so I expected better.

On our second visit, I had the guava glazed ribs, and my wife had the shrimp scampi.  This time, I was able to get a useable photo of the dish.

I would rate the ribs better than the jerk chicken.  The guava sauce was very good; although sweeter than the BBQ sauce you typically find in the U.S., the guava provided a sweet, fruity note that actually went well with the pork ribs.  The ribs were tender, and a right-sized portion, but unfortunately suffered from a slightly burnt flavor, as if the grill was a little too hot.  And for the record, the rum punch in the photo was awesome, if you like rum punch.  My wife ate most of her scampi, though didn't really have any comments one way or another.  Service was much better this time.  Our waitress was friendly and engaging, and kept coming back regularly to check on us. 

As mentioned earlier, you'll pay U.S. prices at resorts like these.  Expect $40-50 for two persons before drinks.

Rating:  2 1/2 stars.  The food itself probably warrants 3 stars, but for the price you pay, I expect better. 

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