Start with a glass of Eva's Knockout Punch, an exotic, sweet-tart blend of fruit juices, cinnamon, clove, ginger and a whole lot of rum, then work your way through a mouthwatering menu of enticing dishes straight from the Caribbean. This is Eva Madray's art—rich curries, jerk seasoning, fresh seafood—and it's what keeps her small, brightly colored gem of a restaurant a standout among culinary-rich Laguna Beach.
Born in Guyana, on the northeast coast of South America, Madray eventually settled in Southern California by way of the East Coast and Canada. (What does she love most about SoCal? "The people!" she exclaims without hesitation.) But all her culinary training came straight from her mother's kitchen. There, she learned generations-old recipes and the complexities of Indian, African and Dutch cuisines, including the art of making exceptional curries such as the one you'll find in the restaurant's best-selling dish, the Curry Snapper.
It wasn't always just Madray behind the wheel. In 1999, her dear friend Lester Lewis (who went by nickname Drew) invited her to buy one-third of his restaurant—and the prime-real-estate Laguna spot became Drew and Eva's Caribbean Kitchen. Soon after, Drew moved on and asked Eva to take over completely. "I had no idea what I was doing," she muses. Yet her natural talent for creating spicy, lush, satisfying dishes shone through any traces of inexperience. When she needed a temporary fix for the new title of the restaurant, Eva simply put a piece of duct tape over Drew's name on the eatery's sign. Customers, who had assumed the two were married, congratulated her upon seeing the handiwork. "They would say, 'Go, girl!'" she merrily recalls.
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Now the space is surely all Eva's. "I cut all the meats, fish," she says. "I have to be here by myself. I have to put my soul into it." And that she does—Madray works 15-hour days, six days a week, and her dedication shows.
This year marks her 13th anniversary running the restaurant, but don't expect any big changes to the menu, only a few additions. "Customers get upset if I take a dish off," she says with a smile. Of the many who visit the cozy, 35-person-capacity, island-themed space, Madray estimates about 80 percent are locals, friendly faces she regularly sees around town.
So what makes Eva's Caribbean Kitchen such a divine culinary experience? An ancient Guyanese secret, she answers. "You can give anyone a recipe—but you have to put your heart and soul into it."