El Latino, LJ's, Natural Vibes 

Three flavorful eateries keep Thurston Road hopping

City Food

Gut instincts

Michael Warren Thomas invited me to join him for a lunch adventure with John DeMott and Dan Apfel of Sector 4 (a Southwest side economic development organization). The idea was to hit three restaurants clustered at the corner of Thurston Road and Milton Street, though our ambition outstripped our appetite.

We began by walking into Natural Vibes Fish & Vegetarian Restaurant and ordering stuffed fish. Then we headed over to El Latino while our order cooked.

Like most Hispanic restaurants, El Latino has a display case so you can point to what you want. My eye gravitated to the roast pork, which was succulent, tender, and deeply flavorful. When I asked for skin, they obliged me.

The deals are absurd, particularly at lunch. "Small" lunches are $4 and include plenty of meat, copious yellow rice, a big bowl of beans, cabbage, and sweet or savory plantains. It might be the best lunch deal in the city. Medium lunches are $6, large $8 (this would certainly feed two or more people).

Michael had the stewed beef, which was tender and came in a rich sauce. Dan and John had the stewed chicken, also outstanding. Try jazzing yours up with El Latino's own hot sauce, cabbage and hot peppers in vinegar. We told ourselves to save room for the other places, but it was hard.

Owner Claribel Medina, who is Dominican, runs El Latino with her mother, Maria Medina. Maria used to cook at Savor de la Isla on the North side, and Maria's boss there suggested the old LJ's location to Claribel. With just a little touch up, she opened in September.

In addition to the dishes mentioned above, daily offerings include roast chicken, stewed oxtail, and ribs. Claribel also makes several dishes to order, including flank steak and fried pork strips. Daily specials include goat and tripe. All dinners are $6/$8, except for fish ($7/$10) and shrimp ($10/$12).

If you're still hungry, check out Medina's flan or tresleches (three-milk cake). Delivery is available for orders over $15.

As we strolled to Natural Vibes, we speculated on why restaurants in this area have a hard time attracting customers. For John and Dan, this is a professional concern, and they were most interested in why people from the neighborhood don't frequent their own eateries. Sadly, we didn't solve this particular riddle.

Natural Vibes is not Gary Phillips' uncle Lloyd's Jamaican restaurant (that would be LJ's). Phillips is a calm guy who takes his reggae and food very seriously. "Actually," he says when asked why he got into this crazy business, "it was trying to find some food. Yeah, trying to find some food, you know?" As a Rastafarian, Phillips doesn't eat meats (other than fish). "I'm going to try to create choices for people like myself."

Much of Natural Vibes' clientele is local Jamaicans, but the broader vegetarian community should pay attention. Everything is cooked using fresh ingredients and vegetable oils. "I wanted an open kitchen," Phillips says, "so you can see exactly what we're doing."

Phillips makes delicious stuff. There is a lightness that is unusual in Caribbean cooking, perhaps due to his vegetarian bent. The spicing is subtle. "These days," Phillips says, "you have beefseasoning,chicken seasoning... it clouds the natural flavors of the foods." Phillips uses the flavors he grew up with --- thyme, peppers, scallion, onion, ginger --- to enhance the flavors of the foods themselves.

The tofu chunks were lightly fried and served over a fabulous rice dish ($8 for small, $10 large, like most dinners). Fried plantains and cabbage rounded out the meal (the plate itself was gorgeous and colorful, presented atop a basket-like place setting). The highlight, though, was a whole snapper stuffed with potato, okra, scallion, thyme, peppers, black pepper, and garlic ($12.99). It was wonderfully balanced, and the fish was flaky and moist, with it's own, sweet flavor shining through.

Natural Vibes is open long hours, and serves all three meals. I'll go back for breakfast porridge of cornmeal, corn hominy, banana, and bulgur. And of course, there is ackee and saltfish, the national food of Jamaica. And definitely check out the Irish moss drink, kind of a vegan eggnog.

The room is unfinished, but nice (Phillips and his partner, Robert Smith, did the work). And the vibe is righteous, with genuine reggae to soothe your nerves and raise your spirit.

Between those two restaurants sit Angela and Lloyd Phillips in the newly-remodeled LJ's. In a 1999 review, I raved about Lloyd's cooking (he went to culinary school in Canada) and the value of the food.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The prices have gone up slightly ($6/$8/$9 from $5/$7/$8), but they're still fabulous. The food is still awesome. I still suck every oxtail bone dry, and leave only clean bones from brown stew chicken. The steamed whole fish is still my favorite (and one of the best dishes in the city).

Dinners include rice and beans or white rice (go for the former), salad or cabbage (the latter), yams or plantains (a push), and dumplin' or mac and cheese (dumplin'!). Get a large and feed a small regiment.

LJ's has moved next door to its original spot, and expanded to include a genuine, sit-down dining room. It's a lovely space on the corner, with windows on two sides, lots of room, and comfortable tables. Some of the hole-in-the-wall charm might be lost, but who'll miss it?

LJ's will deliver anywhere, though there is a $20 minimum and a $3 delivery charge for out-of-area deliveries. Angela also asked that I stress that they do catering. "Write that down," she admonished me.

Are the two Jamaican restaurants redundant? Not according to Gary Phillips. "Two totally different businesses," he says. "Somebody comes here looking for oxtails, I send them there." Contrariwise, the vegan who wanders into LJ's would be sent to Natural Vibes.

I've been trumpeting LJ's for years, but few seem to have tried it. Is it access? Thurston and Milton is two minutes from the 390 Brooks Ave. exit. Parking? LJ's has a huge parking lot out back. It certainly isn't quality or value. Service was good, too, on my recent visits (though to be perfectly honest, I have, at times, waited for a while at LJ's). Without positing really cynical reasons, I'm stumped.

Food tip

Several months ago, El Pino closed at 176 Genesee St., then quickly reopened with new owners as Grandma's Place. The business continues to offer Spanish food, but has added Soul Food, Italian, and American dishes. Sundays feature "All You Can Eat." Prior to opening the restaurant, MareatherKetterer and Kendrah Shaw specialized in catering and wedding cakes (like the beautiful one in the window). 328-5570, or www.momandmrsksweetsandthings.com.

---Michael Warren Thomas of www.SavorLife.com.

El Latino, 366 Thurston Road, 235-3110. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. | LJ's, 360 Thurston Road, 527-0778. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. | Natural Vibes Fish & Vegetarian Restaurant, 348-350 Thurston Road, 235-0770. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.

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