plantain latkas | Photo by Leah LeMoine
STOP. Stop driving by restaurants and shops you’re curious about. Pull in, park and go inside. Try as many new things as you can. At worst, you’ll spend a little money and be disappointed. At least your curiosity will be satisfied, and you’ll know not to go again.
At best, you could discover a new favorite – a neighborhood haunt, a regular spot for meals with friends, a haven with your kind of people, art, vibe, food and drinks. You could meet new friends, a potential partner, a business connection or just a cool server who gives you space while you read and sip cocktails (aka my favorite kind).
I know that’s a bit of a bossy start to a lighthearted happy hour blog, but it’s a directive I’ve been using to boss myself around lately, too. The pandemic’s restaurant and retail casualties have been a grim reminder that nothing is promised. That restaurant I’ve been reading about in The Arizona Republic since I was 12? Closed now. That vintage shop I drove by countless times but was always “too busy” to investigate? Gone. How many more times can I utter, “Ugh, I always wanted to go there. I’m sad I never got around to it,” without feeling sad and guilty?
So now that I’m out in the world again, I’ve been intentionally visiting places on my “always wanted to go” list, with great results. Now I love Gorditas Lily near my house in North Phoenix. The Americano was insanely good. Picazzo’s Healthy Italian Kitchen was a gluten-free revelation. I’ve had some clunkers, which shall remain nameless, but for the most part I’ve been deliciously rewarded for making a point to visit these new-to-me spots.
empanadas | photo by Leah LeMoine
Last week I hit another jackpot with the happy hour at Little Cay. The Caribbean eatery is located at the corner of Tatum and Shea boulevards – directly on my route to work, so I’d driven by countless times on my commutes since it opened in 2019, always making a mental note to try it. As soon as I walked in, I regretted not coming sooner. It’s such a bright and happy space – white tile and wooden panel walls, bright green booths and banquettes, orange and blue stools at high-top tables and a bar, vintage posters celebrating Caribbean life, photos of tropical scenes, a lounge area with pillows and palm trees, and my favorite, a white wall painted with pinky coral leaves and the phrase “CALL IT A DAY.” A sign bossing me around? I dug the role reversal.
My affection for Little Cay only grew as I surveyed the happy hour specials. All appetizers are buy one, get one free (limit one offer per person) during HH, a truly generous deal.
I love fried plantains and I love latkes, so I couldn’t resist the plantain latkas [sic], shredded plantains mounded, flattened and fried like potato pancakes and served with a trio of flavored mayonnaises for dipping ($6). The gentle fruitiness and slight sweetness of the plantains played so well with the garlic, ketchup and curry mayos. I’d expected to like the garlic best, but I found myself returning to the ketchup the most. The tart, salty sweetness was the perfect foil for the fried fruit cakes.
Empanadas ($2.50 for one, $7 for three) also struck a nice savory-sweet balance. I ordered the beef version, which features seasoned picadillo (beef and veg) encased in a crisp yet tender pastry shell. The earthy, meaty filling is lifted by the sweet Cay barbecue sauce served alongside. The veggie empanadas (bell peppers and cream cheese) also sound promising, but I fear I’m too much of a spice pansy for the Jamaican jerk chicken version.
camarones Brazilian | Photo by Leah LeMoine
Croquetas de jamón (ham croquettes) are decadent little batons of mashed potato, ham and melty Swiss cheese, breaded and fried until golden ($7). They come perched in a pool of Créole sauce, a tomato-y gravy that is rich and deep and dark – so earthy it’s almost musty, but in a really good way, if you can imagine. It reminded me a bit of the sauce piquant I’m familiar with from my family’s Cajun/Creole cooking in Louisiana, but it had its own mysterious thing going on. I kept eating more to try to figure out what is in it. Whatever it is, it’s compelling.
Most compelling of all for me, though, was a dish I almost didn’t order. I’m so glad I added camarones Brazilian ($4 for one, $11 for three) at the last minute. Three adorable tostones (double-cooked green plantains) cups are filled with shrimp sautéed with garlic, butter, lime juice, white wine and cilantro. Each shrimp swims in a pool of that gloriously garlicky, buttery and assertively acidic sauce, so taking a bite is also a little like taking a shot. Messy and marvelous. These are the nibbles I’ve been craving since last week.
Little Cay’s happy hour pricing for drinks is something I have never encountered before: time-sensitive pricing. Draft wine and beer, house sangrias and mamajuana are each priced at $3 starting at 3 p.m., $4 starting at 4 p.m., and $5 starting at 5 p.m. Genius idea, and so fun. “Cray at the Cay,” as my editor said when I told him about it. And now with our more flexible work schedules, wouldn’t it be worth starting work a little early to make it to happy hour for $3 drinks?
I ordered the mamajuana, a medicinal drink originating in the Dominican Republic that is made of red wine, rum, honey, herbs and tree bark. It’s served as a shot, but I wanted to sip it and enjoy its complex flavor. I took only a few nips before I broke down and asked for a glass of ice to pour it over – it’s just too hot to not drink icy cold things right now.
Mamajuana and red sangria | Photo by Leah LeMoine
Little Cay offers a trio of sangrias: a dry, crisp white version made with Sauvignon Blanc; a fruitier and sweeter rosé iteration; and an ultra-dry red made with Pinot Noir. I asked the kind man who showed me to my seat which he preferred, and he said the red, but that often customers asked for a “pineapple back,” aka a shot of pineapple juice, or a shot of simple syrup to sweeten the drink. I loved the red – deep, tannic wine flavor with the merest hint of sweetness from the rum. I’m sure pineapple juice would be a welcome addition, but, like the rest of Little Cay, I love the sangria just the way it is.
Happy hour runs Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m.