Every Sunday night, the beat of steel drums can be heard along the shoreline of Tobago, the Caribbean island just northeast of Trinidad. It's "Sunday School" at Kelvin Cadiz' restaurant, Captain's Sandbar, and the festivities go well into daybreak.
"It sounds like church," says Cadiz, flashing a sly grin. "It is not church."
Cadiz is still part owner of that island restaurant, but these days he's also splitting his time running the Callaloo Café (15601 Waterloo Rd., 216-926-4673), which landed in Collinwood's Waterloo Arts District in early 2013.
Drawing from the owner's experience with the authentic cuisine of Trinidad, Callaloo's menu is constructed around Caribbean classics like tropical cocktails, well-seasoned seafood, and the curry he could smell from blocks away back in Tobago. Much of that flavor comes from chadon beni — or culantro — an herb used frequently in Trinidad and Tobago to add intensity, which finds its way into his burritos and tacos.
Tradition has always been key for Cadiz, who represents his upbringing with dishes such as roti and Buss Up Shut. The restaurant itself is named after the national dish of Trinidad, callaloo, a comforting stew that Cadiz makes with okra, spinach and pilaf.
Cadiz still travels home twice a year to absorb the flavors of Tobago. He recalls his younger days when his grandmother would advise him while she cooked: "You better pay attention to what I'm doing; you might need it one day." He still visits, where her fresh seafood preparations rekindle his island roots while inspiring dishes like red snapper bathed in coconut milk that he prepares at Callaloo.
Inside Callaloo, the Trinidad flag hangs high while steel drums sit before an expansive island-themed mural. Regular live music serves to bolster the worldly, spirited ambiance.
It was the steel drum that brought Cadiz to America. In 1996, Robin VanLear, the Cleveland Museum of Art's director of community art and creator of Parade the Circle, was granted an Ohio Arts Council award to travel to Trinidad and Tobago. When she later returned to lead a workshop, her cottage was situated next to an affable, established young drummer named Kelvin Cadiz.
VanLear invited Cadiz to America to perform in the annual University Circle event and over the next decade he continued traveling between his Cleveland residency and his homeland.
"One thing really important to the survival of the steel drum there is how much they teach it to their children," says VanLear. "Kelvin had an interest not just in playing but also in teaching the skill and sharing his talents with the people of the community. He's naturally gregarious. That's something I wanted to bring to Cleveland."
Through his association with the museum, Cadiz was approached about possibly taking over the corner storefront connected to the Arts Collinwood gallery, a space that hasn't had much consistency as a restaurant. And like a drummer's instinctual rhythm, Cadiz advanced with an easy confidence.
"They needed something that would bring diversity," he explains. "It was the only way to make this work. I thought of the name Callaloo because it means bringing things together."
When he returns from his annual winter trip home, Cadiz will be closing in on two years at his Collinwood restaurant. The path hasn't been without its hurdles, of course, especially given the near-endless construction along Waterloo Road that coincided with his opening. But while there have been bleak moments, Cadiz says his only choice is to look forward, which is much easier now that the construction is done.
"Two years can't start when you begin with construction," he says. "Two years starts now."