May 16, 2005 – While many visitors to St. Thomas are inclined to patronize the more conveniently located and larger Waterfront restaurants, it is really the smaller "mom-and-pop" businesses that hold a place as cornerstones in the community. Located on side alleys and out-of-the-way streets, these gems seem to hold great cultural appeal for the locals, both with the familiarity of the food and the level of comfort around the owners.
Ideal Restaurant on Garden Street is one such place, where a delicious plate and genial conversation make the best after-work treat.
Although it is a small spaceapproximately 400 square feetit has a big personality, and currently it serves as one of the only Indian restaurants on St. Thomas. "It is surprising that with such a large Indian population here there aren't more places," said co-owner Ben Jhingai, "especially since there is a demand for them."
But there are some benefits to the lack of competition diners are seen moving in and out of Ideal's doors all day, some staying to soak up the atmosphere while others congregate outside to chat with old friends before going back to work. "Some days we're too busy," Jhingai joked.
Jhingai, a native of Trinidad, moved to St. Thomas about 35 years ago because he was transferred from his job. "But I always went back," he said, adding that he made trips annually to visit family and friends. On one such trip, he met his wife of 17 years, S. Jhingai, who eventually agreed to move to the V.I.
"I worked in one of the jewelry stores originally," said S., whose first name consists only of that initial. "And my husband was working at A.H Riise. But then one day, we both got tired of all the hustle and decided to open our own business."
"People always say that it's better to work for yourself," added her husband.
In 1996, the couple opened their first enterprise, a takeout service, on the side of Raadets Gade. "It was much smaller than this," S. indicated, "and eventually we had to move because TOPA [the company that owned the building] wanted to covert it into a meter room. But it worked out perfectly, because we found this place in 1996, and we've been here ever since."
Renowned for its roti, Ideal, according to Ben, seeks to bring a piece of Trinidad to the V.I., serving curried and stewed dishes with rice or wrapped within the roti itself. "Everyone talks about our roti," he says proudly, adding that when he and his wife come back from vacation, their customers complain about how much weight they've lost. "They eat here every day," he said, "so without our food, they all lose weight."
Ideal's reputation has also extended to the tourist crowds. "When they come here, they want something different, and that's what we give them. Even the locals want something different. Our food is the best from both the East and West Indies; it's different from the other restaurants and small delis."
S., a co-chef, says that this is the secret to their success. "We cook all of our own food," she said. "I don't think people understand how hard that is. With something like 13 dishes on the menu, someone has to get up pretty early in the morning." Like her husband, S.'s experience in Trinidad has been transposed to St. Thomas cooking from her childhood, she always helped her family prepare meals.
Although there are no current plans to expand the restaurant, the Jhingai family seems quite content in their operation. "It takes a lot of work to run a full-scale restaurant," Ben explains, "and we get enough customers as it is. But I like it like this. And it's something we can call our own."
Ideal Restaurant is available for takeout and pickup during weekdays.
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