The best anthropology is the kind you can eat. For example, the “Haitian mac” side item from Taste of Fran’s, a small, nascent Haitian food venture in Huntsville. Of course here in Alabama, mac-and-cheese isn’t just a side. It’s nearly a religion. And while Fran’s Haitian mac isn’t voodoo – or as they spell it Haiti, vodou – it’s something you should do.
This isn’t a case of shamelessly cramming some South into an otherwise un-Southern menu just to have something a little more accessible in there. Haitian mac-and-cheese is a legit thing. In Haiti, it’s often referred to as makawoni au graten. Part of the Haiti twist on mac and cheese – the proto forms of which are believed to date back to at least 14th century Europe – is the addition of bell peppers and onions.
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Taste of Fran’s version benefits from peppers and onions, which are accents here rather than chewing up the scenery. This is a very creamy, rich and textural mac and cheese. Alluringly cheesy golden crust on top. Down below, the ratio of cheese to the penne pasta is optimal. Fran’s uses five to six different types of cheese with each batch, including smoked gouda and a pepper jack. Which is why the Haitian mac is the most expensive standalone side on the Fran’s menu, at five bucks. That said, there’s enough for two jumbo servings or three or more sensibly sized servings.
This Haitian is one of the better macs I’ve had in a while. Maybe a long while. On a recent Saturday afternoon, we also tried a couple of Taste of Fran’s plate-style entrees: the “chicken complete” ($15) and “griot complete” ($16). Both come with diri djon djon (a traditional Haitian black mushroom rice), two fried plantains and a side salad. Griot is fried pork shoulder. Ours was tender if a tad fatty. The chicken, a fried leg and thigh, was right-on.
Diri djon djon is a funky different rice side, with the best-ever use of lima beans, heretofore a vegetable I’ve regarded with scorn. Protein wise, both the bird and pig were slightly zesty. What really worked was cutting those up a bit and mixing them up with the rice and the spicy slaw, called pikliz, that comes with each of these plates and served in small plastic sauce cups.
The diagonally sliced plantains were candy-like, sweet and chewy. The side salad was fresh and a nice offset to some of the heavier items. A little container of ranch dressing is included for the salad, but we bypassed that in favor of the red, slightly zingy vegetable sauce that’s meant for the rice.
Although maybe not traditional, grilled versions of the chicken and griot would be good variations – and appreciated options, for those who’ve rebuked fried things. Next time, I’d try Fran’s “shrimp complete” ($18, with same sides), which gets you 10 jumbo shrimp – grilled or fried.
It looks like Taste of Fran’s has been operating in Huntsville since early this year or so. The titular chef is Franschesca Casy, a Haitian native who previously operated Fran’s out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I got hip to Fran’s after seeing their posts on that all powerful digital community billboard of social media. A complete menu and more info can be found at facebook.com/TasteOfEnglish.
Ordering from Fran’s has a clandestine vibe to it. You have to pre-order a day ahead of time and they’re only operating a couple days a week, usually Friday and Saturday 1 to 6 pm It’s primarily pick-up orders, although delivery is available at $1 per mile. You call or text your order to 256-750-0223. Then you prepay via Cash App, Apple Pay, etc. You schedule the pickup time a day ahead too.
After payment is received, you get an address to pick-up your food from. You text them when you’re on your way and when you get there, then they bring the order out to you. The people running Fran’s are sweet to deal with, and it’s easy to tell they put a lot of care and roots into their cooking. The business is based in North Huntsville in a location I’ll describe as unorthodox. As Paul McCartney sang in a certain Caribbean-set James Bond film, live and let die.