If you rolled into Singh's Roti Shop expecting "West Indian dining" to comprise chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and a mango lassi, well, you wouldn't be the first.
"Some people don't know about the food, and think we're from India," owner Ricky Singh told me. "But it's Caribbean flavors, and we start educating them."
I've going to Singh's for the past six years, but each trip is still an education, courtesy of the cheerful, gabby Singh. There aren't a ton of West Indies-style restaurants in these parts, let alone establishments focusing on Trinidadian roti. Adapted from Indian flatbreads, roti can refer to the "skin"—the bread itself—or an entire meal, in which the bread is filled with curried meats, legumes, and other vegetables. On an average day, Singh's prepares 200 roti; during local food festivals, that number swells to 1,500.
Singh himself hails from Princes Town, in southwestern Trinidad, where his family owned a restaurant and taught him the tools of the trade. He moved to the U.S. in 1988 at the age of 17; when he later married Kay, also Trinidadian, their business began to take shape. In fact, he said, "we catered our own wedding—with 400 guests."
They opened up shop in 2003 in a small storefront on Columbia Road, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. "In New York, they have quite a lot of these restaurants, but not in Boston," Singh explained. "We wanted to do something different."
Singh will proudly tell you that most of his ingredients are locally sourced, but there's one key ingredient that's shipped straight from Trinidad, at a cost of $40 per bucket: curry powder, a Madras blend that includes coriander, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek and other spices. It adds up, he insists, to a "unique West Indies flavor—you can't really use a different curry and get the same flavor."
Roti at Singh's start with a hand-cranked corn mill, which grinds yellow split peas down into a crumbly texture. The peas are folded into a flour-based dough kneaded with baking powder, salt and sugar; it's then rolled out into a large disc, squirted with a spiral of vegetable oil and tossed onto a 400°F grill. It only takes a few minutes before the roti puffs out dramatically, resembling the special-occasion balloons you'd buy at a party store. When it starts releasing steam, you know it's almost done.
Once the skin is removed from the grill, it's curry time. The choices are vast; the posted menu is merely a guide and not all items are available on a daily basis. On most days, though, you'll find a selection of curried baby shrimp, tender boneless chicken, jerk chicken, curried goat, and beef ($8.99-$11.99). For vegetarians, there are curried chickpeas, potatoes, red kidney beans, rice, and a vegetable blend of locally grown collard greens, carrots, and cabbage ($7.99).
Although now doused with fillings, the roti skin manages to maintain its two puffy, golden-brown layers. The inner layer, caked with the gritty yellow peas, is suffused with curry sauce, while the outer remains more chewy and taut, perfect for sopping up the filling if you fancy yourself the fork-free type. Either way, yellow, curry-scented stains on your fingers are pretty much unavoidable.
There's another roti skin, with the snappy moniker Buss Up Shut ($4.99), for customers who might not care for the taste or texture of the ground peas. Just be sure to come with an appetite—the skin is three times as big; rolled out, the dough disc is wider than your typical large pizza. When it's almost finished cooking, it's sliced and diced right on the grill, resembling a tattered t-shirt by the time it's served.
For those seeking a change of pace, Singh's serves up Trinidadian fare beyond roti. Judging by the customers I've observed, Doubles ($2) are just as popular. The fried-dough sandwiches are stuffed with chickpeas cooked in cumin, masala, cilantro, and culantro, an herb indigenous to the West Indies. "In Trinidad, the average person will eat five or six [doubles] at a time," Singh said. "They'll have them for breakfast; it's like going to Dunkin' Donuts here."
The airy fried dough, flavored with turmeric, isn't an easy texture to achieve—Kay does a lot of kneading by hand. "Not everyone can make doubles. If everyone could, they'd be sold all over the place," Singh said. Overflowing with curried chickpeas, doubles can be hard to pick up and eat. "It's supposed to be a messy food," he confirmed.
Similar is Pholourie ($2), seasoned dough rolled into balls that's fried for seven minutes in vegetable oil and served as an appetizer with a dipping sauce of tamarind chutney.
This is probably a good time to mention that Singh makes his own tamarind chutney, as well as his own pepper sauce and a range of hot sauces, all processed and bottled in-house.
Some might retire after such a generous meal, but I prefer to end my visits on a sweet note. There's a sorrel beverage, made in-house and mixed with sugar and spices, including an especially toasty note of nutmeg. There are also flaky Currant Rolls ($2), replete with their namesake berries and dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar.
And though Singh used to import Tamarind Balls ($2) from Trinidad, he now makes his own. The dense orbs, sprinkled with white granulated sugar, almost assault you with sweetness on the front end—a little too intense for my tastes, but my husband approves—before delivering a warming hint of that Madras spice mixture at the end.
Singh definitely has some loyal followers: Just before Christmas, he prepared and shipped a huge box of food to Texas to a former customer. The food bill? $285. "And the UPS bill was almost more than the food," he said.
Luckily, Bostonians needn't resort to such long-haul methods. The restaurant launched its own food truck a couple of years ago, which Singh said will be at Castle Island when the weather gets warmer. In the meantime, delivery just started, with a 5-mile radius.
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