Customers are loyal to Famena’s Caribbean cuisine



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OLFACTION, the sense of smell, is the strongest sense in the human body.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/05/2015 (2704 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OLFACTION, the sense of smell, is the strongest sense in the human body.

While human taste buds can only detect five distinct sensations (bitter, salty, savoury, sour and sweet), our olfactory system is equipped to process more than 10,000 different odours. But hey, don’t take Wikipedia’s word for it — listen to what Famena Ally of Famena’s Famous Roti/ Curry, an aromatic restaurant at 295 Garry St., has to say on the subject.

“We have a ventilation system that blows the fumes coming off the grill outside,” says Famena, who runs her namesake locale in tandem with her husband, Mohammed. (His full name is Mohammed Ally, and yes, he’s heard every boxing joke in the book.) “Sometimes when it’s windy, the scent of what we’re cooking carries. We’ve had people come in saying they could smell us from Portage and Main (about 500 metres away). They said (the scent) was making them hungry, so they followed it to see where it was coming from.”

‘It doesn’t matter if you’re here by yourself or with friends, because everybody at the counter ends up talking to everybody else, anyways’

— regular patron Gerard Agostini

Famena and Mohammed were born in Guyana. They met in the coastal town of New Amsterdam in 1987 and got married three months after their first date. In 1990, thieves ransacked their home, burning it to the ground in the process. The next morning, Famena told Mohammed she wanted to move to Canada, where one of her sisters was already living.

“Guyana is a beautiful country, but it’s tough,” says Famena, who grew up in a family of 10 children, as did her husband. “You can work hard your whole life, come home one night and find out it’s all been taken away from you.”

Once she was firmly entrenched in Winnipeg, Famena enrolled in a business administration course at Herzing College. She worked as an administrative assistant for years, but after losing her position in 2007, she asked herself, “Do I get the government to support me or do I do something for myself?”

One afternoon, Famena was poring through the weekend newspaper when she spotted an ad in the careers section titled “Be Your Own Boss!” She dialed the number listed at the bottom of the blurb. The person who answered was the owner of the Garrick Hotel. He told her he was looking for somebody to operate the historic inn’s main-floor coffee shop.

“Before I came to Canada, I didn’t even know cooking in a restaurant was a profession,” she says. “Where we grew up, everybody knew how to cook; nobody thought of it as a job.”

The Allys opened Famena’s Café inside the Garrick in the fall of 2007. They started off serving routine fare, mostly soups and sandwiches. In time, Famena and Mohammed began to add Caribbean dishes such as rotis, oxtail stew and doubles (the latter is a type of sandwich popular in Trinidad and Tobago) to the mix. By 2010, the couple’s jerk and curry dishes had built up a faithful following. So they were disappointed to learn the hotel was going to be changing hands and a prolonged renovation phase would spell the end of their tenure there.

Around the same time, the people who operated a Bavarian diner two doors over from the Garrick Hotel were calling it quits. In July 2010, one of the co-owners of the Kraut King, located on the ground level of the Garry Street Parkade, complained to reporters “drunks and drug addicts” in the downtown core were scaring off her customers and it had become impossible to turn a profit. Famena begs to differ.

“When I told people I was interested (in moving there), they asked me how I could do better when the last (owner) complained so much,” she says. “I told them I’d been at the Garrick for three years and I knew it wasn’t as bad an area as it was being made out to be.”

People who frequented 295 Garry St. in the 1960s, when it housed a Salisbury House restaurant, would have no trouble recognizing the cosy, 200-square-foot space today. The iconic, curved lunch counter is the same as it ever was. So is the capacity. There are still only 14 stools up for grabs — 13 if you heed a taped on sign attached to the back of one that reads “Do not use.”

One difference worth noting: While Winnipeggers are still able to get a slice of wafer pie at any Sals in town, it’s been a while since anybody scored dessert at Famena’s.

“We used to sell sweets, but nobody ever ordered them — nobody had enough room left after their meal,” says Mohammed with a laugh as he watches his wife ladle a mountain of curry chicken, chickpeas and potatoes into a crispy, homemade roti wrap for a customer who spent 45 minutes on a bus to get “a taste of home.”

David Horton is an exercise rider at Assiniboia Downs. About a month ago, he was telling a co-worker he loved Winnipeg but he missed the type of food he grew up with in Barbados. She grabbed a piece of paper, jotted down the address of Famena’s and handed it back to him, saying, “Here you go.”

“I’ve tried rotis and stuff from a couple of places in town, but they were s— compared to this place,” Horton says, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “I’ve been a seasonal worker at the track for five years, and I get mad thinking about all the meals I missed out on during that time.”

Seated two chairs away from Horton is Gerard Agostini, a native of Trinidad and Tobago. Agostini has been coming to Famena’s ever since it opened, he says, as much for the atmosphere as for his favourite dish — beef roti and fried rice.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re here by yourself or with friends, because everybody at the counter ends up talking to everybody else, anyways,” Agostini says, noting it’s been 30 minutes since he polished off his meal but he’s in no hurry to leave. “I’m not exaggerating when I say it feels like my second home.”

Famena’s Famous Roti/Curry is open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. until, well… that’s open to debate.

“Sometimes we’re about to shut the doors at 8:30 (p.m.) and a person comes in at the last minute,” Famena says. “Then somebody walks by, sees we’re still open and comes in, too. There are nights when we don’t get out of here until 10 or 10:30, but we don’t mind. This is our life, right here.”

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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