Ever since sixth grade, I’ve had a weird fascination with Suriname. It’s probably South America’s least-discussed nation, since it’s tiny (population 490,000) and Americans are pretty much never interested in small countries that lack terrorists, beaches, and oil. If you tell a friend that you’re headed to Suriname, you’ll almost certainly receive a blank stare, or else your friend will ask if that’s the name of a new nightclub in Chelsea.
And that’s sad, because Suriname is at least as interesting as Chelsea. Suriname is a former Dutch colony, and arguably one of the world’s most impressive (and tiniest) melting pots, with substantial African, Native American, Lebanese, East Indian, Javanese, Brazilian, Chinese, and Jewish populations. Suriname is also one of the most multilingual nations on earth, with no fewer than 17 regional languages recognized by the federal government. I think that means that the food will be good.
So I was pretty stoked when I realized that there’s a Surinamese restaurant in Queens, called Warung Kario. I was even more stoked when I found out that the owners are of Indonesian descent, since I love Indonesian food. Indonesian-Surinamese food? This was going to be shout-from-the-rooftops sort of good, right?
Warung Kario’s menu skews Indonesian, with items such as sate and nasi goreng prominently mentioned on the sign above the steam table. At lunchtime, however, the menu is pretty much completely meaningless. When we walked in at around 1:30 in the afternoon, the friendly owner smiled and said that she had just started to cook for the day, so our options were limited. We smiled back, confessed that we were new to Surinamese food and wanted to try everything, and asked for two plates loaded with whatever happened to be ready: curry chicken and fried fish, as it turned out.
Even with the limited options at Warung Kario, we could see hints of Suriname’s ethnic mayhem in the food. One dish included an entire deep-fried fish, sitting on a massive bed of fried rice and pan-fried noodles, in the style of a Chinese take-out joint. The plate also included sautéed collards and green beans, which resembled the side dishes served in a Trinidadian or Guyanese restaurant, and a few slices of cucumbers lightly marinated in sweetened vinegar… and I have no idea where that came from. The fish was fairly boring, but the vegetables were delicious, and everything was helped along by one of the tastiest hot sauces I’ve ever eaten—probably a product of the Javanese side of Warung Kario’s genealogy.
The curry chicken was absolutely heavenly: fresh chunks of chicken thigh, stewed in a surprisingly light yellow curry sauce, more reminiscent of a Caribbean curry than the feisty, coconut-milk-heavy stuff served in many Indonesian restaurants. The curry chicken was also served with a handful of stewed pinto beans, more collard greens, and a few more slices of lightly marinated cucumbers.
Each of our Surinamese combo platters ($8) were impossibly large—not that I’m complaining or anything. My companion was having boy troubles, and wasn’t terribly hungry (apparently, receiving 30 lovesick text messages the morning after a supposed one-night stand can really ruin your appetite… but you know what they say about men with big, long text messages), so I gamely tried to avoid wasting any of her food. That was silly, because I could barely finish my share of the platters. That was a big fish.
Was the food shout-from-the-rooftops good? Not quite. Unspiced fried fish and fried noodles won’t really make me shout about anything. But that curry was pretty damned tasty. And the hot sauce made my bowels shout and sing happily for days.
128-12 Liberty Ave., Queens (Ozone Park)
Subway: Lefferts Ave. (A train)