LAKE PLACID — I've heard about it for years. I've driven past the big, colorful sign by the road. But I had never set foot inside the Caribbean Cowboy Saloon and Grille.
There's no website. They do very little advertising. But they've been there for close to 10 years, and if business the weekday night we were there is any indication, they've been doing something right for the last decade.
The sign out front is just the beginning, because the entrance is out back. So is the parking lot, small and crowded. Inside the door, the place is warm and welcoming but very modest, which is the delightful surprise.
At first glance, it looks like the back of a building that might have once been low-rent storage space. Don't be snobbish about the old-style black leatherette-topped bar stools. Or the basic wooden tables. Or the Caribbean kitsch. It is outfitted very much like an island restaurant.
As we were about to find out, there's some considerable culinary magic going on here.
The menu is Caribbean. No, it's Asian. No, wait, it's Cajun. Do I see quesadillas and burritos? Is that really Thai green curry tofu?
We realized from the first tastes that there's a master chef with excellent and nuanced culinary instincts behind the grill. The place grows on you as each dish rewards you with complex flavors, perfectly prepared, served hot and with excellent plate presentation.
Our laid-back, genial waitress was terrific. She took pains to make us aware of the specialties of the house, the relationship of the regular menu and the day's special menu (some of the specials were just things from the regular menu with bit of a twist) and the portion sizes of each, which proved invaluable, and did save us from ordering what would have been way too much food for the four of us.
We decided to try a specialty drink from the bar along with a few specialty beers.
The "Dark and Stormy" was a nice, rich Bermuda rum and ginger beer concoction.
Lake Placid's own Ubu Ale and a Red Stripe from Jamaica all went well with our starters
We'd been warned that the starters are very ample portions, perfect for sharing with your friends, or even making into a meal.
An island favorite, shrimp and black bean fritters ($11) — four of them served nice and warm — came with two dipping sauces, a hot spicy mayonnaise-based sauce and a pureed mango sauce. The deep-fried balls contained obvious pieces of shrimp in the coarsely-ground black bean base. They were nicely seasoned with a complex blend of flavors and came with a lovely side of fresh and crunchy Asian slaw.
Satay chicken skewers ($11) consisted of very good, tender, easy-to-manage chicken strips on a stick, coated with a spicy, not-too-hot homemade Indonesian-style peanut sauce, with additional crushed peanuts sprinkled on top. A handful of lovely mixed greens was served alongside, carefully tied in a bundle with a slice of red onion and lightly kissed with a soy-sesame-ginger dressing.
Bahamian shrimp and clam chowder ($8) was great, a rich broth made with a beautiful dark roux, small bites of seafood, corn and assorted vegetables and intriguing Caribbean spices. Sherry from a small ceramic cruet came on the side, adding another taste dimension when swirled into the chowder.
Two big, fat spring rolls ($11) were cut on the bias, creating four wedges of crisp wrapper to reveal the filling of jerk chicken and bits of pork along with spinach and mango. A sweet chili garlic dipping sauce accented the rolls nicely.
The abundance of fine food to this point (fittingly plated on festive Fiestaware) made our decision to order just two entrées and share them.
They were preceded by two beautiful salads, a healthy mix of romaine and veggies, one topped with blue cheese, the other with feta, both with just-right homemade raspberry-balsamic vinaigrette. We particularly enjoyed the feta salad — the dry and salty characteristics of the feta nicely accenting the slightly sweet dressing.
Jerk chicken ($22) was simply outstanding. A free-range chicken half was marinated, slow-roasted and braised until the moist meat practically fell off the bones. The skin was coated with a tasty, dark, rich jerk sauce glaze with overtones of allspice and mild chiles. A refreshing mango mojo salsa accompanied.
There was a wonderful side of beans and rice, called Moros and Christianos in most of the Caribbean. White rice mixed with black beans and pinto beans and their juices had a delightful citrus note provided by bits of kaffir lime leaf.
Quesadillas seem so ordinary, we almost didn't order the Cowboy's seafood quesadilla ($22). Lucky we did — it was extraordinary, perfectly grilled, nearly an inch thick and chock full of shrimp and crawfish along with green onions, tomatoes, jalapenos and shredded cheddar. Fresh salsa, mango mojo, guacamole and sour cream completed the plate.
Since we had been conservative by sharing our two entrées, we decided to have two desserts and share them as well.
The "Kickin' Cowboy" key lime pie ($8) was superb. A crunchy graham cracker crust supported a layer of key lime custard, topped with 2 inches of fresh whipped cream. The touch of the chef was evident in bits of lime zest which had been folded into the luscious cream.
The pineapple tart ($8) was quite a creation. A warm puff pastry crust was filled with a perfect vanilla custard, a generous pile of thinly sliced fresh pineapple, and finished with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis. Yum-eee.
Our dinner — four starters, two entrées and two desserts — came to $113 with tax, excluding drinks and tip.
Caribbean Cowboy was an amazing discovery. The next time I'm in Lake Placid, I know where I'll be stopping, and I'll probably grab a seat at the copper-topped bar and hang with the locals — and tourists in the know — enjoying a superlative après ski dinner. No need to dress up or put on airs to eat here. Come as you are and enjoy what this superior eatery has to offer.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caribbean Cowboy Saloon and Grille
2126 Saranac Ave.
Lake Placid, N.Y.
1 (518) 523-3836
Caribbean, Asian, Cajun, Mexican and Thai cuisine, all expertly prepared.
WINTER HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
5 to 9 p.m. Sunday
STARTER PICKS: Shrimp and black bean fritters, spring rolls with chicken, spinach and mango, satay chicken skewers
ENTRÉE PICKS: Caribbean jerk chicken, seafood quesadilla
DESSERT PICKS: Kickin' Cowboy key lime pie, fresh pineapple tart