Lauren Herbert grew up in a beautifully blended place, coastal South American country Guyana, and her cooking is that way too.
Herbert is the chef at Tamarind Island Grille. They serve Caribbean soul-food out of an Airstream trailer at The Camp, a charming outdoor spot in Huntsville that’s also the toran to MidCity, a mixed-use development with Top Golf, Dave & Busters, etc. and where the Huntsville Amphitheater is being built. On a recent afternoon, I stopped by The Camp to check out Tamarind’s victuals.
What the permanently-parked Tamarind trailer lacks in mobility it more than makes up for in vibe. The sleek silver Airstream has patina on it and there’s a window unit air-conditioner installed into the vessel’s bow. A cartoon caped-crusader emblazons the door.
The side window is raised and that’s where you order. The menu’s written on an A-frame chalkboard sign just to the left. The fried fish and jerk chicken bowls ($12 each) were the top two things listed on the menu, so that’s what I tried.
Tamarind’s jerk chicken is now my spirit animal. Super tender leg quarter (drumstick and thigh), aromatically seasoned. They marinate their bird in jerk spices for two or three days and then it’s usually grilled, but since Tamarind’s grill was on the fritz, they’re oven-roasting it for now. Tamarind cooks some of their food in the Airstream and some in a portable commissary out back.
Normally with chicken cooked skin-on I remove the skin, for two reasons: One, it’s healthier and two, consuming the skin of another creature is weird. But in the case of Tamarind’s jerk chicken, it’s a good weird. Let the skin-eating begin! Lots of flavor and exotic heat concentrated on there.
Tamarind bowls are accompanied by excellent sides. The greens are the first I’ve ever actually enjoyed. Normally, collard greens are too swampy for me, but Tamarind’s isn’t like that. It’s more like the island side-dish callaloo. Shredded, fresher and lighter and flash cooked in spiced water.
The bowls are also loaded up with Herbert’s play on cook-up rice, a traditional Guyana side with beans, rice, coconut milk and spices cooked in the same pot. It looks and tastes like a Caribbean prequel to New Orleans red beans and rice. The mac & cheese that comes with the bowls is exactly how you want it. Nifty, melty balance of real cheddar cheese and macaroni elbows.
It’s not easy to get excited about slaw. That said, Tamarind’s has a welcome twist. No mayo. So no goopy wilted jive. Just a little lemon and spices to give the mix of shredded lettuce, carrots and red cabbage zing. For the fried fish, they use whiting filets and seasoned flour and mine was on point. Golden exterior, flaky soft interior. Satisfying portion.
The great thing about Tamarind’s bowl entrees and well balanced sides is making use of the bowl itself, and combining bites of greens and rice, chicken and mac, slaw and chicken, etc. As far as beverages go, Tamarind offers ginger beer and some other stuff but I went with bottled water as to not step on the food’s colorful flavors. Other entrees on the menu include curry chicken and stew chicken ($10 each). Desserts include a mango cheesecake (slice $6).
Tamarind’s is a vegan-friendly joint. They offer vegan fried “chicken,” vegan mango “chicken” and vegan barbecue jerk plates ($14 each), with vegan mac & cheese swapped for the regular mac.
The Camp’s grounds are dotted with shade sails, string lights and planters. Wooden cable spools have been repurposed as tables and topped with umbrellas. There’s a funky bar and a live music stage too.
It took maybe seven minutes for Tamarind to get my food to get out. During this sun bleached Friday lunch, at first I was the only customer there. But soon other folks were trickling-in to order too. On this day, Herbert was flying the Airstream with the help of one other cook. When they had some downtime, Herbert and I sat at one of those cable spool tables to chat.
Turns out, Tamarind is kind of an escape pod/offshoot of Mangos Caribbean Restaurant, which was located just down the road from The Camp’s 5090 University Drive address. I’d enjoyed Mangos, particularly the succulent oxtail, during a 2012 dining review. Unfortunately, Mangos closed in 2020 because the pandemic impacted business, and other issues, according to Herbert, who worked there during the restaurant’s entire eight-year run, she says.
Some of Mangos former guests have followed to Tamarind Island Grille, which opened about five weeks ago. So far weekday lunches can be a little slow. But Herbert says business picks up in the evening and especially if there’s an event at The Camp that night. Tamarind’s hours are noon to 6 or 7 p.m. -ish Tuesday through Sunday. If there’s an event, they may stay open a little longer. “Weekends, we get good foot traffic all through the day,” says Herbert, who voice has a lovely Caribbean lilt to it.
She tells me Caribbean soul food “touches the heart.” Her grandmother and mother taught her how to cook and she uses and adapts some of their recipes for Tamarind’s menu. “Food and music go hand in hand with our family,” says Tamarind. “I just inherited that.” Her go-to cooking jams include the music of Mighty Sparrow, Grace Thrillers and Bob Marley. Cooking is a joy for her. “To see people eat and enjoy my food, I feel it right down, you know?” Herbert says.
I ask Herbert what life in her homeland’s like. “Guyana is hot,” she says. “Hot like it is right now or even hotter, but we have a nice breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. We’re the only English speaking country in South America. Our food, our makeup of people, is just like the Caribbean. We have East Indian. African, Portuguese, Chinese. It all goes into the food.”
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