Kaya’s island-inspired fare a welcome beach vacation for one’s palate
Fall is here … and winter is coming. Though the temperature is dropping, you can transport yourself to the tropics anytime at Kaya in the Strip District. Inspired by cuisine from the Caribbean, South America, the Pacific and beyond, the island-inspired food is bold, flavorful and refreshing.
Start off with a specialty cocktail such as a mojito, grapefruit-basil margarita, or either the white or red sangria. Order the sangria by the glass or opt for a pitcher that will pour about three-and-a-half glasses.
There are plenty of sharable appetizers, more than 15 to be exact, so you can absolutely create a meal out of several of them for yourself or order a handful for the table.
While deciding, begin with the Kaya chips — thin slices of fried plantains, potato and malanga, with a light and refreshing mango-tomatillo salsa. Don’t overlook the creamy, smoky, spicy and cheesy Yucatan hot bean dip of black beans, chipotle peppers, mayo, parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper and chile powder blended together and topped with melted cheese. Sometimes chips are too thin to hold the dips they are served with, but that’s not the case at Kaya. These chips are thick enough to hold an ample amount of goodness, so dip away.
For a more substantial “chip and dip” appetizer, a must-try is the jerked pork and plantain nachos — thin slices of plantains fried to a golden brown and topped with pulled jerk pork, Chihuahua cheese, guacamole, pickled red onions, spicy Fresno chiles, green onions and cilantro. I’m a huge fan of plantains and will eat them any chance I get. This dish didn’t disappoint. The plantains weren’t soggy with the plethora of toppings, and the pickled red onions balanced the heat of the chiles well. If you love plantains as much as I do, this dish will be perfect for you. Warning: You won’t want to share it.
I also am a recent poke fanatic, so I had to order this raw tuna salad on the menu. Tender pieces of raw tuna are served with fresh pineapple, spicy mayo, cilantro, seaweed, lime, green onions, black sesame seeds and sticky rice. This dish has all of the flavors I was looking for, but I wish there were more pieces of tuna and less (or no) rice. Other appetizer options include red-stripe peel-and-eat shrimp with an Old Bay tropical tartar sauce, corn and lentil beignets served with a green curry sauce, shrimp and scallop ceviche and conch hush puppies with a habanero aioli that brings the heat.
Fresh pineapple, spicy chiles, cool cilantro and refreshing lime are the flavor profiles in a lot of the dishes here, so you can see why Kaya will immediately turn your winter blues into a happier song. Off the tacos and sandwiches menu, there are two items you have to order. The first is some of the best fried fish tacos around with cornmeal-crusted, crunchy, fried fish in charred and grilled flour tortillas with creamy avocado, a crunchy cabbage slaw, spicy creme fraiche and finished with cilantro.
The fried chicken sandwich is even better than the fish tacos. A thick, juicy and tender piece of buttermilk-marinated fried chicken breast is served on a soft sesame seed bun with briny pickles, crunchy cabbage and a hot habanero-honey mustard sauce. This sandwich is so large, it’s served with a knife through the center. Your best bet is to just pick it up and go all in, eating the entire thing without putting it down. Because once you do, it will get messy. The fried chicken is exceptional, and the combination of the spicy honey mustard and the briny pickles is a palate pleaser. Don’t think twice about ordering this sandwich, just do it. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.
If you stop by on Sundays for brunch, you can find this chicken sandwich on the menu as well as fried chicken and waffles with tabasco butter, bacon, green onions and maple syrup. And Thursdays are fried chicken dinner nights. At $18 per person, each dinner includes half of a chicken, tortillas, a seasonal, weekly changing sauce and a side dish.
Vegetarian options dot the menu and include tempura avocado banh mi tacos, Jamaican green curry vegetables and the seasonal vegetable paella: squash, mushrooms, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pineapple and greens.
For a meatier entree, the grilled flank steak is a safe bet. Served medium rare per the kitchen’s recommendations, the tender piece of juicy meat is cut over a bed of heirloom tomatoes, green beans, fingerling potatoes and corn with a lime chimichurri and topped with spicy Fresno chiles with two corn tortillas on the side. Eat the steak as is or use the corn tortillas to create your own steak tacos. This dish was decent, but nothing compares to the fried chicken sandwich.
Taking a trip to Kaya will have you feeling like you’re headed to the beach. Although sunscreen isn’t required, be sure to come with an appetite.