Esther Etienne has brought to Brandon what she said it sorely needed, a restaurant serving authentic Caribbean cuisine. At the Red Fork Café, at the corner of Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue, Etienne serves up fresh dishes focused on rich flavor, including signature dishes of jerk chicken, “succulent oxtails” and snapper.
It is how the former social worker, who said she began cooking at around age 12, describes the culinary fare offered at her quaint, warmly decorated restaurant in a spot doors down from O’Brien’s Irish Pub and Family Restaurant, in the shopping center across the street from Platinum Bank and the Curry Law Group.
Etienne, who opened her restaurant in October, with a ribbon-cutting in November, said the passion to cook has been with her since childhood.
“I remember I was in middle school, in New York City, and I would come home from school and prepare the chicken for my mom,” Etienne said. “I’ve always loved cooking.”
At her Brandon restaurant, “we’re all Caribbean, we’re Cuba, Montinique and Haiti,” she said. “We bring that flavor home.”
While the café is newly opened, she added, the people who dine at the Red Fork Café are spreading the word. “We have people telling us all the time, ‘My neighbor sent me here,’ ” Etienne said.
“To die for,” she added, is the snapper, a dish described on the menu as, “whole snapper seasoned in fresh spice and balsamic vinegar, served with rice and beans.” Want it steamed? You’ll have to “allow 20 to 30 minutes” of cooking time. Prefer it fried? The wait will be 10 to 15 minutes.
Served Caribbean style in other restaurants, she added, the snapper comes with salt and vinegar, “but here the snapper’s already marinated, you don’t need anything to flavor the fish.”
That’s possible, she added, because everything is cooked fresh and made to order, at a dining establishment catered to an intimate group of diners, which makes it possible to marinate fish in advance without worrying about how many people will be ordering the dish the next day.
“When you’re talking authentic Caribbean cuisine, this is the place,” Etienne said.
What makes for authentic Caribbean cuisine?
“It’s the flavor, it’s the freshness,” she said. “We don’t do anything pre-cooked. Nothing is frozen, we cook everything here.”
When you dine at her café, “you need to be relaxed,” she said. “It’s not, ‘boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s going to take a little time.”
In the kitchen, “we make our own garnishes,” she said. Marinades of seasonings — including parsley, garlic, bell pepper, basil and onion — they’re made fresh as well.
“We use cloves of fresh garlic we buy in bulk, that we have to peel,” Etienne said. "Fresh, that’s how we do it here.”
After a career in social work, Etienne said she opened a restaurant in Texas, which stayed open for three years. An oven exploded, causing her to burn her hand but not her spirit to prevail.
In Brandon, the walls of the Red Fork Café are richly colored in red, reflecting the warmth of her eatery and her outlook on life.
“I’m a happy person, I love life, and to me red reflects that,” she said. “I thank God every day. Red means victory to me. Even in my house I have red walls.”
The Red Fork Café has both a wine and beer license, Etienne said, and serves what she called “the best Caribbean cocktail.”
Catering is available, for both small (“five plates, three plates”) and large-scale gatherings.
Visit the Red Fork Café online.
The restaurant is at 715 West Lumsden Road. Call: 813-685-4290.