Utila! A friendly place where you never know who you’ll meet. One evening I’m sitting on EcoMarine’s dock for the day’s dive stories and a sundowner (as I do), when a conversation about available food fare breaks out. Everyone voices what they are craving. From the end of the table a new voice cuts in; introduce Stuart. Long time Utila resident that first arrived in 1988, opening in partnership one of the first dive shops on island, UDC. That’s a pretty big deal. Those days are gone, with a multitude of shops now settled in, but it turns out Stuart is still keeping busy doing what others on island aren’t: Thai Food
Unquestionably curious, I get the full story. Cooking since childhood, a solid entrepreneurial spirit, with many years spent in Thailand, and a passion for gardening; it was simply a natural progression for him to open a front-porch style restaurant, just off the main drag. Obviously, I had to go check this out.
I make a date with 3 friends to sample some of this there Funky Chicken. I’ve been warned that this restaurant is not open late, outside of special requests made in advance, it’s usually closed by 10pm. It’s approaching 8pm on a quiet Wednesday night when we finally head down the road. Along the way our dinner party grows as we encounter other hungry people, arriving just after 8pm with 6 other hungry mouths in-tow. Stuart is chatting it up with a couple placing their food order. Right off the bat we’re informed that we came a little late in the evening for the full menu that other diners beat us to. The menu does change regularly based on ingredient availability, and what fruits / veg are in season. The dining area is a large front porch to a small house, that is mostly just a kitchen, situated a one minute walk off the main strip (turn right at Hugo’s Store if walking West. One block up on right past Johnny’s Water) in a mostly residential neighborhood. It’s got that going to a friends-house-dinner-party vibe. Especially since on this evening, Stuart was a one man show. There’s only 4 tables, two long picnic style, and two low Japanese inspired floor tables with pillows. We snag the second long table and were able to fit all 7 of us.
Our host gave us the run down on what was available: Fresh green papaya salad. Dim Sum with mango/lobster, or pork/chicken. Curry dishes with seafood or pork/ chicken. We order drinks (beer 35lps and wine 65lps) and start debating among ourselves on what to order. Having worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade, I can tell you at this point we became one of those annoying tables; all wanting to share the dishes, but we weren’t quite sure how much to order. Stuart was very patient and super accommodating throughout the whole confusing conversation. He ended up leaving us with a pad of paper to sort out our order. Problem solved! We were ready to taste a bit of everything: 2 Papaya salads, 7 mango/lobster dim sum, 6 chicken/pork dim sum, 2 curry pork/chicken, 2 seafood curry.
The experience has begun. We chat while our host gets to work cooking, taking in the surroundings; It’s a simple eclectic set-up, with neat wooden knick-knacks and mixed-media art work. I over hear there’s plans to do a few murals and install a water feature in the near future. Expansion of the garden is a top priority; where kale, mustard greens, herbs are grown for cooking. The menu makes the mission clear, anything not being grown on site is being sourced from local farmers, or is being carried straight from Thailand by Stewart himself, whenever possible.
First course: Green Papaya Salad! A heaping bowl of firm julienne sliced local papaya, tossed with tomatoes, peppers, and some onions in a spicy-thai local lime juice dressing. Topped with peanuts, garnished with a healthy handful of raw green beans, also grown locally. A hot cold dish perfect for this Caribbean climate. A genuine taste-bud pleaser.
Next ! We finish up the salad, taking our time because this isn’t a fast food restaurant. Most of the table realizes a one man show is something to sit back and enjoy, not rush. Our dim sum arrives. We were actually treated to sampling 3 different kinds (mix ups can happen when you show up with a large table later in the evening). We had two differnt styles of pork/chicken, served with a sweet honey-soy-garlic-ginger-sesame oil dipping sauce – the first was a dumpling, with a hardy wrap. The second was my personal favorite, dim sum. A much thinner wrap allowed for all the tantalizing flavors to really showcase themselves.
Between courses being presented and cleared, Stuart finds time to chat with us and answer any questions. Takes a seat with the other table to get to know them a bit. It’s like going to your friends porch for dinner, there’s no other way to put it. Stewart could entertain you all night with stories from Utila or around the world.
Queue the main course: Curry! Only there wasn’t much curry flavor for my super taste-buds. The seafood came with large unpeeled prawns, perfectly cooked, yet messy for my clumsy self. The rice was sticky, and overall it just wasn’t a dish I’d personally get again. Let’s return to the theme: Imagine you showed up late to your friends house for dinner, unannounced with 6 other people, their fridge is near empty from hosting earlier diners but you still ask for dinner, and your gracious host just wants to make you happy.
Funky Chicken is a personal dining experience that I look forward to enjoying again. The bill came to 1300lps – not even 65usd for a 3 course meal, enough for 6 hungry people (the seventh guest wasn’t that hungry) and drinks. I’d say that’s a deal! In future I’ll be sure to make a reservation (tricky when your table grows just getting to the joint) or I’ll make a point to show up earlier, not on Europe time! I now know Stuart can be contacted directly through the Funky Chicken Inn facebook page, or by phone at 9969.1001. Of course, you’re also likely to see him around town, he does know just about everybody, he’s just that personable.
Conclusion: I want more papaya salad. A bucket of papaya salad. And I’ll definitely be making a reservation next time I see the Cocao Lobster on the menu… Thanks Stuart !