A long, snail-paced line snakes from the brunch buffet at Port-au-Prince in Silver Spring, giving patrons at the rare Haitian restaurant in the area a chance to talk as they wait. The woman ahead of me, who says she grew up on the cuisine, takes it upon herself to tell me what to fill up on. As we approach the steam table, she sighs. “The best is gone,” she says of a metal pan devoid of the oxtail stew it once displayed. “But you can taste the broth.”
I ladle some sauce — sour orange juice and cider vinegar clinging to bits of shredded meat — onto my plate, which I then crowd with dishes the kitchen has in stock: salt cod in a stew sharpened with crisp onions and habanero, a porridge of cornmeal streaked with sauteed spinach and watercress, and eggs scrambled with bell peppers. I return to the line when I see a fresh batch of the oxtail stew emerge from the kitchen. My reward is meat so seductive, I join my neighbors in sucking on the bones to extract every bit of flavor.
A question for the woman in line: Does the food remind her of home? She nods, cracks a sly smile and replies, “Except for the heat and the flies and mosquitoes” — missing ingredients in Silver Spring, thank you very much.
Launched as a pop-up two years ago, Port-au-Prince morphed into a colorful, 60-seat restaurant in February. Spearheading the enterprise are brothers Roberto and Makendy Massillon, the self-taught chef and front-of-the-house presence, respectively.
Roberto, a U.S. Army veteran who also goes by the nickname “Don Berto,” sees his food — influenced by Spain, France, Africa and elsewhere — as welcoming. “No matter where you’re from,” he says, “you’ll find yourself in Haitian cuisine.” Also: “Without garlic, we don’t cook.”
Dinner draws include akra, cigar-length malanga fritters served with a teasing Creole dip; bannann peze, twice-fried yellow plantains pressed into flat discs and accompanied by a tropical version of coleslaw; and deep-fried, pepper-sauced turkey, a dish the chef recalls eating as a youth in Haiti on Heroes’ Day every Jan. 2.
The chef says the biggest challenge is the time it takes to cook some of the dishes. Take the goat, which is salted, stripped of any gaminess with boiling herbed water, marinated overnight in dark rum and apple cider vinegar, boiled and finally fried — a process that can take as long as 48 hours. “Don’t go hungry” to a Haitian’s invitation to dinner, he jokes.
The backdrop for the food is a high-ceilinged storefront dressed with animal masks, turquoise paint and a mural depicting a marching band in front of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (damaged in the country’s 2010 earthquake and demolished two years later). On weekends in particular, the scene feels like a spirited family reunion. Hugs, French accents and the music of corks being released from Champagne bottles fuel the fun. When you’re one of only a few sources for a cuisine, you see a grateful crowd.
Meals require patience from diners, however. Brunch is particularly disorganized, with no clear host at the door and servers who fail to make contact with increasingly hangry customers. The eventual arrival of pineapple-flavored mimosas helps right some wrongs.
Regulars halfheartedly complain the restaurant doesn’t serve Haitian classics made with pork or shellfish. “I want my conch!” one of them tells me. Roberto, a Seventh Day Adventist, says the foodstuffs are against his religion. But not mimosas? With regard to cocktails, says the chef, “I don’t go by the [church] doctrine, I go by the Bible.”
7912 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-565-2006. paphaitiancuisine.com. Entrees, $14 to $22.