Spark at Engine Co. 12: Firing Up Caribbean Cuisine

It’s an Instagram photo of chicken wings that prompts me to add Spark at Engine Co. 12 to my restaurant to-do list.  Chicken wings are my Kryptonite.  Show me a good photo of chicken wings, and I’ll show you a food obsessed blogger who can’t wait to get her hands on those babies.

Spark is a Caribbean smokehouse that resides in the former Engine Company 12 firehouse on North Capitol Street, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC.  The location is clearly destined for smoke… one way or another.  The firehouse was built in 1897, and what makes this space particularly interesting is how the building’s history is incorporated in the décor.  The exposed brick walls are decorated with vintage photos of the original firehouse and neighborhood. The fire pole is intact, and if you check out the upstairs event space you can peer through the opening into the restaurant’s main dining room.

The seating is communal, and the informal approach includes dishes served on wooden slabs, and rolls of paper towels on the table.  Industrial, rustic, and vintage elements are rolled up into one – and the end result is an affable neighborhood gathering place.

Chef Peter Prime is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and he brings the Caribbean flavors to Spark with sincerity and a sense of pride. He has worked for Chef Todd Gray at Equinox and Chef Michel Richard at Central. When he’s not in the kitchen he can be found strolling through the restaurant, checking in with diners to see how they’re faring.

The menu opens with a section titled “Small Sparks.” Avocado beignets with coconut chutney provide those addictive qualities that are so appealing in a starter.  You know the ones…crispy exterior, creamy interior, and a dipping sauce bursting with intense flavor.

Jerk wings are deeply charred and smoky. The juicy wings produce a serious drip down my chin, and I can only imagine what kind of mark the char is leaving on my face and teeth.  I hope that the cocktail I’m sipping washes away the evidence of the wings I’m inhaling.  But I don’t really care. I’m in wing mode, enjoying the impetus to our visit.

Chilled corn soup with habanero, basil oil, and tomato is refreshing and light – spicy but not too overpowering.

We move to the Smokehouse Meats section of the menu.  I have this thing about lamb ribs.  I frequently order them and then remember that I find them too fatty to thoroughly enjoy. Spark’s Tamarind Grilled Lamb Ribs are well-seasoned, and at their essence a fine example of the benefit of smoking meat.  I just can’t get past the thick layer of fat, and so I move on to other dishes.

Listed among the offerings of smoked beef, brisket, pork belly, and chicken is an unexpected dish- Hen of the Woods. Thick seared mushrooms are brushed with jerk-miso marinade and habanero oil.  No layers of fat in sight, and I embrace this meaty vegetarian plate with gusto.

 

The heat goes on with lively fried red snapper, laid out on a layer of banana leaves atop a wooden plank.  The fish is fashionably dressed with peppers, cilantro, and soy sauce. It’s a winner.

One of my dining companions orders smoked mac and cheese. I’m ambivalent about eating such a heavy dish on a warm summer night, particularly as an accompaniment to such high fat food.  But mac and cheese really is a perfect accompaniment to barbeque – here and in the Caribbean. As soon as I dig into this lively rendition, my hesitation melts away and my fork repeatedly finds its way back into the bowl.

Not every dish at Spark delivers a serious burn, but there are delectable sauces that allow diners to add heat if desired.  Sometimes it’s enough to let the flavors of the Caribbean lay low with guava, tamarind, mango, and coconut adding subtle touches of sizzle.

Sorbet Push Pops with flavors of smoked coconut, mango sorbet, and guava lime are a wonderful idea, but they can’t stand up to the heat.  Chef Prime witnesses the meltdown and kindly brings us a second round.  There’s something to be said for push pops as a fitting summer finale, but I have my eye on another dessert for a future visit- banana beignets with rum and Coke syrup and Pop Rocks.

Servers are warm and congenial, and genuinely invested in igniting positive experiences for guests. I arrive in pursuit of the chicken wings.  I leave fired up about Spark at Engine Co. 12 – a restaurant that delivers the flavors and the spirit of the Caribbean.

Spark at Engine Co. 12, 1626 North Capitol St NW, Washington, DC 20002

 

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