About Harry Singh's

There’s nothing better than the dishes learned at your mother’s side and then artfully perfected over 40 years of dinner services.

This story—of Singh and his Minnesota doubles—begins in 1945, when Kissoondath “Joe Flat” and Carmen Singh welcomed their first son, baby Harry, into a small home in a village outside Princes Town, on the island of Trinidad. They were third-generation Indo-Trinidadian, whose parents had arrived as indentured laborers of the British.
The village wasn’t electrified, and the family cooked in an outdoor kitchen. Imagine a small clay volcano, squat and wide. That was the outdoor cooking fire. The round-bottomed pot that Singh still uses would have sat on that clay volcano. Eventually, the Singh family would have seven children, and in 1953, when Harry was seven, Carmen taught him all the tricks of the kitchen. 

“Guess the first thing she made me cook: roti and pumpkin.” You have to start kids early at roti, he explains, because the layered bread is incredibly difficult to make. First you mix up a dough, then you grind a split-pea filling, and then, somehow, you end up with a big old pancake. It’s thin—a few millimeters of stretchy bread dough on the outside, a few millimeters of spiced lentils in the middle, and another few millimeters of bread dough on the other side. It takes most people years to make a good one, Singh says. 

He rolls them out and cooks them on a cast-iron tawa, a slightly bowed griddle of sorts. And to see him do it sort of defies the sense of your eyes. Take a ball of dough, a scoop of filling, rolling pin, rolling pin, giant perfect roti!  In Singh’s opinion, it takes most people years to make a good roti.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll burn every thing. The trick is, you have to know the consistency of the flour and let it rest. A shortcut thing—I don’t do that.”  In that outdoor kitchen where he grew up, Singh says, he had everything. Green mangoes in the trees for a green mango chutney, different fresh chilies, avocados growing everywhere, chickens for eggs, and a tied-up goat for meat. Everyone in the village knew each other: Singh walked the village kids to school, where he met a little girl called Anne Marie. 

Joe Flat drove a taxi, a big black ’48 Ford, and everyone in the village could hear when he drove toward home, often with a fish he’d picked up in Princes Town. Carmen and Joe Flat would listen to Indian music on the battery-powered Blaupunkt radio. And for some reason, when the battery ran low, Singh could get more power out of it by pressing the connector.  As his dad ate curried kingfish, his mother would call out, “Press it, Har!” 

Then, suddenly, in 1962, independence came to Trinidad. Singh was 17 and feeling like everyone in the world had money and freedom, except people in small villages in Trinidad. “We had to wash our clothes on a scrubbing board in a tub outside. You try that one day,” says Singh. 

He attended college for generals in Trinidad. But when he saw an ad in the newspaper for, of all things, Minneapolis Business College, he applied. When he got in, he kept the acceptance letter a secret from Carmen for eight months, hiding it in the visor of the taxi. 

When he arrived in Minneapolis in 1970, the school sent someone to meet him who stashed him in a church overnight, to sleep on a pew. But the school’s minder showed up to collect him the next day, helped him find a Loring Park apartment for $75 a month, and stocked it with Goodwill furniture. Young Singh set out the door and started walking down Hennepin Avenue, door-knocking for something to make money at night. He found a job 15 blocks along, after crossing the Mississippi, at Nye’s Polonaise Room.

Here he met Minneapolis restaurant legend Al Nye.  “Al became my father figure,” Singh recalls. “He helped me get my first checking account. He showed me how to make pierogi, how to do the big, big steak.” 

Through Minneapolis Business College, Singh also met Hubert Humphrey, who helped him secure a green card. “He wanted my birth paper, my work paper.” Singh shrugs at the memory. “And then he bought me a car! A ’60 Chevy. He said, I only paid $50 for this car. Open the trunk. Mr. Humphrey put two boxes of groceries, a battery, and a spare tire in the car! He called me Sonny Boy. He was really a great man.” 

Singh worked at Nye’s washing dishes for four years, then landed a job in a Northeast foundry, forging wheels for freight trains. On a visit back to Trinidad, the family of his childhood friend, Anne Marie, pulled him aside. “‘She won’t marry anyone else,’” Singh recalls hearing. “I said: ‘Oh cheezers.’” 

The couple married in the village and took an apartment in Northeast, where Anne Marie and Harry soon welcomed two baby boys, David and Robyn. When Singh finally graduated from school, he took a job as a parole officer. But his heart broke to see men separated from their families. “After one week I told Anne Marie, ‘We have got to open a Caribbean restaurant. There is no Caribbean restaurant in all of Minnesota!’”
The Singhs opened their first place in 1983, on Central Avenue in Northeast. It was called, simply, Harry Singh’s Caribbean Restaurant. 

The critic for the Star Tribune, Jeremy Iggers, came and focused, oddly, on the hot sauce: “The ‘average’ hot sauce made with mango and papaya is excruciatingly hot. The hottest of the hot sauce defies description, but if owner Harry Singh carries through on his plan to sell the stuff by the bottle, the FDA and the EPA should both be alerted.”  This review would dictate the coverage of the restaurant, essentially till this day. 
“We never encouraged people to eat this thing hot, but. . . ” Singh shrugs. Camera crews came with gallon jugs of water to set around on-camera tasters, should fires need to be dampened. It turned into something of a sensation.

The restaurant relocated to Lyn-Lake, and they strung chili-pepper lights through the dining room. Those were the good years. Prince was dating Apollonia 6 star Susan Moonsie, whose parents came from Trinidad, and they would send a white limousine for roti and curried kingfish head, a delicacy. 

Singh bought his mother and father a stove, a refrigerator, a bed. “Everything we had in America.” When he went home, he was puzzled to find his mother still cooking eggplant on the outdoor stove, but she told him it was sweeter that way. In time, Harry and Anne Marie made a spot in their home for his youngest sibling, Marla—later of Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine. 

Until this point, Singh’s biography sounds a lot like an archetypal American success story: Man comes to America, Hubert Humphrey buys him a car, etc. But at this point, things got rough. Anne Marie struggled with alcoholism. The family’s savings evaporated, time and again, as the family paid for her to enter rehab. Singh, in turn, would shut down the restaurant to care for the boys. 

In 1997, Singh’s wife died in his arms. “The dream shattered!” he says. Her picture hangs in the dining room. A lot of the customers who come in still remember her, and they stand near her picture and talk about how much they miss her. Ultimately, Singh will conclude, “I always forgave her anything. But a sickness is a sickness.” 

When I was visiting with Singh, a customer popped in. He had biked 12 miles to get here, and when Singh told him it wasn’t a good time, he said he’d come back tomorrow.  “When I went to Trinidad, the food isn’t as good as Harry’s,” the patron declared.

Part of the reason I wanted to write this story now is that I feel like we all, as a restaurant scene, don’t appreciate Harry Singh enough. Maybe we think because he’s been here since 1983, he’ll be here forever. All of south Minneapolis was shocked and appalled when a massive rent increase caused Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine to shutter its doors. Possibly to relocate, possibly not.
There’s a sense of loss we diners feel when something we’ve counted on—something we took for granted, even—vanishes. But I am here to tell you that Harry Singh has five years left on his lease, and his landlord has been frank with him about the ever-increasing offers she’s getting for his building. A six-story high-rise, which will hold 80 brand new units beneath a rooftop patio, is going up across the street.

“I get offers, I get offers,” Singh tells me, shaking his head. “But the general idea is to keep busy. What am I going to do, watch TV?”  We sit down in a booth, and I drink some of Singh’s homemade ginger beer, and he gestures to a mural on the wall that a friend painted for him. “You see that donkey carrying the coconuts?” I glance up. “Even in the rain, he’s slipping, slipping, but he don’t give up! In our time, those poor donkeys, they had to carry everything. But that gets in your blood, and you work, work, work.”

And you fry doubles and roll roti, whether or not the world is wise enough to pay attention.