Affordable Caribbean In Humble Buffalo Trappings: Mobay's

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Mobay's Restaurant
3167 Bailey Ave., Buffalo, NY 14215
Phone: 716.835.0069
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"Mobay's half portion was actually a full meal, containing three large pieces of chicken - breast, thigh, and drumstick - all served wet, in a nice but thin barbecue sauce that was equal parts sweet and spiced."

To call Mobay's one of Western New York's undiscovered culinary gems would be a little too generous, but there's little doubt that this Caribbean restaurant's location and venue have kept it from receiving the attention it deserves. Inconspicuously located next to a closed movie theater on Bailey Avenue in Buffalo, Mobay's name and signage barely communicate its ethnic offerings to drivers-by, and it doesn't have the sort of charming surroundings that might encourage spontaneous walk-ins. You have to live in the neighborhood or know that it's there - from, say, the Taste of Buffalo - and even then, it's not your typical year-round, sit-down restaurant. On our mid-March visit with temperatures in the 40's, the place was coat-wearing chilly inside. All of the people who stopped in during our visit were taking their meals to go, rather than sitting in the small, old dining room with us as we shivered through our dinner. Still, it was obvious why the foot traffic was so high: Mobay's serves good meals at low prices.

The Menu. Mobay's menu is a single sheet of photocopied paper folded in half, with sides, beverages, and desserts on one interior side, and entrees on the other. Half of the menu items are familiar enough - chicken fingers, wings, hamburgers, hot dogs, and turkey burgers - but the rest are Caribbean items: coco bread, plantains, D&G Jamaican sodas, jerk chicken, curry goat, and Jamaican patties. You can sit down with a slightly spicy D&G Cream Soda Mousse drink and have a fully Caribbean meal, as we did, or take out fingers and fries, as other customers were doing. In any case, the food is affordable across the board: all of the dinners are available in whole ($9 to $13) or generous half ($6 to $7) sizes, each including two side dishes, and six dessert options include five cakes and puddings that all sound appealing, most at $2.50 per piece. Unless you're starving, it's easy to fill up with a half dinner and one dessert.

Dinners. We skipped wings, burgers, and hot dogs and went straight for Mobay's Caribbean dishes, specifically half-sized plates of Curry Chicken with Dumplings ($6.70/half, $10/whole) and Jerk BBQ Chicken ($6/half, $9.25/whole). Neither of these dishes was a revelation, but they were both really good: the bright yellow curry chicken contained fewer finger-shaped, noodle-like dumplings than chunks of breast meat, surprising in both ratio and in quality; so many places offering chicken and dumplings provide plenty of the thick dumplings and too little meat. Modestly spicy but certainly fresh and rich with the curry sauce, the chicken went really well with the side of red beans and slightly sweet, coconut-hinted rice; the shredded, lightly seasoned stewed cabbage side was comparatively bland.

There are two jerk chicken entrees on the menu: the "Jerk Chicken," and the "Jerk BBQ Chicken," the latter of which won a Taste of Buffalo award for "Best Meat" back in 2007. Mobay's half portion was actually a full meal, containing three large pieces of chicken - breast, thigh, and drumstick - all served wet, in a nice but thin barbecue sauce that was equal parts sweet and spiced with traditionally smoky Jamaican jerk herbs. Though our selected sides of white rice and corn were both nice, with surprisingly fresh corn kernels rather than soggy ones, the tender, meaty chicken and sauce were surely the best items on the plate. Unlike the typical jerk chicken, this version was soft and seemingly broiled rather than grilled to a crispy finish, yet still satisfying. We both agreed that the Curry Chicken with Dumplings was a better dish overall, but we enjoyed each of the dinners, and sharing them.

The only real disappointment at this stage was the side of Plantains ($2.50), which we've had and either loved or shrugged off on dozens of occasions in the past. Under the best conditions, plantains are either served soft and sweet or crispy like chips, in either case requiring more thorough cooking than they received here. Mobay's served them as a bowl of firm, thick-sliced chunks with too little sweetness or crispiness to be fun in any way - equivalent to hard, nearly dry, and not yet ripe cooked bananas. Additional ripening, a nice sauce, or thinner slices with more time on the oven would have helped.

Desserts. Normally, the two of us try at most to sample one or two desserts, but Mobay's list of options compelled us to push a little further. We started with one thing we already knew here - the Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding, which we'd tried and really enjoyed at last year's Taste of Buffalo - and one we didn't, the Pineapple Upside Down Cake, which we've more frequently found disappointing than "right" at restaurants over the past year. Both items turned out to be surprises.

We were really looking forward to the Pudding, which we noted at the Taste "possessed a surprisingly complex and interesting flavor that kept changing in our mouths - a very, very good dessert." Unfortunately, what Mobay's served on this visit was a chewy brick-shaped slice of pudding that - along with the plate - was obviously just taken out of a microwave oven, and nowhere near as fresh as the version that won us over at the Taste last year. When we asked, we were told that it wasn't served fresh because there wasn't a lot of demand for it, which was really disappointing. The previously interesting, changing flavor was so obscured by the heat and the firmness of the slice that this would have been unidentifiable as the same item we'd tried months earlier - the very rare example of an item that tasted better at the outdoor festival than at the actual restaurant.

On the other hand, Mobay's Pineapple Upside Down Cake was surprisingly wonderful: fresh, soft yellow cake that was so delicious and yielding that we finally felt justified in having ordered this item so many times elsewhere in hopes of a good or great version. Mobay's recipe wasn't anything fancy, but the ingredients and prep checked the right boxes: the brown sugar-soaked pineapples and maraschino cherries were both quite good, but it was the sweet, lightly coconut-flavored cake that really won us over. We wound up ordering another slice to take home, and gave into temptation to try a piece of the Jamaican Rum Cake, as well.

As the only $2.75 dessert on the menu, Mobay's Rum Cake looked like a slice of rich chocolate pie, but it was actually a very dense piece of fruit cake with dark rum for added flavor. There are some delicious rum cakes out there, differing in recipes, lightness, and aesthetics, but this one didn't do much for us: despite its very reasonable moisture, it was too stiff, like a dense bread pudding, and the flavor was dominated by the taste of dark fruits and spice rather than rum or cake. It led us to feel that Mobay's desserts are really hit and miss, but as is obvious from its Taste of Buffalo performances, on the right day, different items could wind up being real winners.

Is Mobay's worth your time to visit? If you're in the neighborhood and looking for a meal with strong, interesting Caribbean flavors at reasonable prices, definitely - it mightn't be fancy, but it's better in both cleanliness and food than Main Street's Doctor Bird's. Our advice: stop by at a time when the indoor temperature won't bother you, or follow what Mobay's regulars do, picking your meal up and taking it home. Delivery is also offered if you'd rather enjoy a Jamaican evening without having to leave your place.

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