The village of Hardbargain, Trinidad is so small that even people who live on the Caribbean island don’t recognize the name. Lisa “Queen Trini” Nelson, who grew up there, simply refers to it as “the bush.” Her love of cooking blossomed when she was a teenager, watching her mom in the kitchen and experimenting together with recipes influenced by Trinidad and Tobago’s prevalent African, East Indian, and Asian flavors and cultures (the sister islands form one country).
“Those were precious moments,” she said. “I was her sous chef without knowing it.”
From Trinidad to the Bywater
Before becoming Queen Trini, Nelson moved from Trinidad to New York to live with her dad, and later to New Jersey to start her own family. She was first lured to New Orleans by the weather after her family’s contracting business took a long-term gig repairing a client’s damaged properties in the Bywater neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina.
“They used to call me on breaks, just chillin’ on the front porch–nice and hot–while I’m shoveling snow and freezing my butt off in New Jersey,” she said.
When she came down for the summer to visit, it was love at first sight.
“I was like, ‘Wow, the weather is so nice, and there are so many trees.’”
Though it was devastated by the storm, she could see the beauty and feel the Caribbean vibe, especially in the warmth of the people and the culture.
“How long were y’all going to stay down here again?” she asked the crew. With enough work to keep them going for the foreseeable future, Nelson and her four children moved down for good shortly after.
Contracting to cooking
The contracting work evolved into her family opening a small hardware store on St. Claude Avenue, which ran for a few years before getting priced out by the big-box competition. Next, they bought a nearby corner store and its menu of popular New Orleans fare (think po’boys and fried chicken), which dropped Nelson into her first commercial kitchen (as well as her very first hot sausage po’boys, her favorite) and long, hard hours at work.
Too tired to cook at home, she noticed her kids weren’t eating well. She took to multitasking in the store kitchen, cooking up more wholesome family meals on the extra burners.
“And that’s where the whole thing started,” she said.
On the days she was cooking for the kids, regular customers asked what smelled so heavenly.
To Nelson, it was just regular food.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about? What’s so special about lentils, chicken and rice?’”
They pleaded to try some and – after getting a taste – pleaded to buy it. Then they’d come in the next day to see if she had more.
“So, I said, ‘Fine, I’ll cook and sell on Sundays,’” she said.
Not only did she sell out, but people came back on Monday to buy leftovers.
“Caribbean people don’t mess with leftovers, forget about buying them,” she said. “I was a little offended.”
But a light went off, and she expanded cooking her Caribbean food to two nights a week, then four, and eventually every day, rotating in her favorite dishes like the ones she used to make with her mom, who had since passed.
When word about the tasty Caribbean food coming out of the back of a corner store started getting out, Nelson found herself needing some marketing help. She hired a college student who set her up on social media, declaring her Queen Trini Lisa.
“I side-eyed her,” she said, claiming she couldn’t live up to the title. But with a common Trini name like Lisa, she knew it could differentiate her. Plus, it would take forever to find another handle. Short on time and energy, she conceded.
“OK, I guess I’m a queen.”
People started calling the store and asking if the queen was in. “Well, yes,” she’d answer hesitantly, “this is Lisa.” The more it happened, the more she liked the sound of it, she admitted. “People address me as queen now, and I love it — except when my kids do it, that’s too much,” she said with a laugh.
Queen Trini Lisa’s Coco Bread Fish Sandwich with mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, pineapples and butterfly fried sweet plantains wrapped in warm toasted coco bread. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
Soon, the food became the main business revenue between the store sales and doing pop-ups around town. With the challenges of running a corner store piling up (broken appliances, break-ins, competition, and even a hold-up), Nelson decided to branch out even more by trying her first festival.
Practice makes perfect
After a food historian friend wrote a two-page letter to help get Nelson a booth at the NOLA Caribbean Festival, she took a big risk by making “bake and shark” – an iconic Trinbagonian sandwich of seasoned fish (yes, shark meat) between two pieces of fluffy fried bread (the “bake” part), dressed with fresh lettuce, tomato, and cabbage. She sold out the first day. The queen was crowned with the top prize at the festival’s jerk chicken competition a few years later with her unique barbecue version (one of her proudest moments and on her regular menu). By this time she’d let the corner store go, focusing entirely on pop-ups, festivals, and a spot at the former Roux Carre food court in Central City.
The Trini population of New Orleans (widely referred to as the Northernmost city in the Caribbean) began seeking her out, excited to try their favorite foods like roti – a flatbread wrap with a variety of fillings, and doubles–a vegan, anytime-of-day snack of seasoned chickpeas folded into two pieces of flatbread. Nelson never made these at home in Trinidad because the Indian street vendors made them fresh and made them best. When customers found out she didn’t have them, she witnessed “the happiness leave their face.” After enough sad faces she couldn’t take it anymore and committed to teaching herself to make doubles.
“I promised myself I would try making them three or four times a week, just practicing, practicing, practicing,” she said.
There was YouTube, cooking channels, and recipe books–a whole year and a half of trial and error to get it just right. And just like she did with her mom, she came up with a version she liked by combining various techniques and recipes.
“It’s a little bigger than the ones back home,” she said. “It’s more of a meal.”
She wants people to get their money’s worth. The dough is fried to order to maintain supreme fluffiness and taste. Mango chutney, tamarind and hot sauces served on the side are made from scratch.
Queen Trini Lisa’s perfected vegan Doubles: two pieces of turmeric-flavored flatbread cooked fresh, filled with curried chickpeas, with sides of mango chutney and tamarind and hot sauces made from scratch. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
What exactly is Caribbean soul food?
When I asked what is commonly misunderstood about Trini food, Nelson said people don’t know where Trinidad is, and they think it’s Jamaica (she invokes Trinidadian-born Nicki Minaj’s name to help sort it out). A visit to her new brick-and-mortar neighborhood spot in Mid-City (opened in January this year) can help remedy that with its warm, blue-and-green-hued tropical vibe, leafy plants, and ubiquitous use of the Trinidad and Tobago flag. Not to mention the Trini-and-Caribbean-loving people who flock to it. (And the smell, of course.)
Nelson infuses New Orleans flavors into her recipes, like Creole seasoning in the doubles and Louisiana brand fish fry for her fish, because she believes in “making home where you are.” She also loves being able to accommodate a variety of diets with gluten-free and vegan options and by using Halal chicken in her curry and jerk dishes. To keep it interesting (for her and for us), she adds specials every so often like Trini Yakamein, seafood doubles, oxtail soup, mango chow, corn soup, and yes, bake and shark. She also experiments with grits and oxtail, and practices with the roti.
“People work hard for their money, and with so much great food in this city, I’m always grateful that they choose to come and spend it with me,” she said, still humbly in awe of her own journey. “I mean, I’m just a girl who grew up in the bush, and here I am rubbing elbows with award-winning chefs [like the 2022 Black History Month collaboration dinner with Nina Compton], winning awards, being on TV, and now having my own brick and mortar, I’m like wow, I did not see this coming.”
Queen Trini Lisa’s Island Soul Food restaurant at 4200 D’Hemecourt Street in Mid-City, open Tuesday-Saturday. Follow her on Instagram at @the_queen_trini for hours and specials. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
Since she started, her kids have been working with her, doing dishes, prepping, serving, and hauling supplies. They’re very loving, she said, and are her backbone.
“I’m not Queen Trini without them, and, honestly, they’re the reason I’m Queen Trini at all.”
Nelson said for a long time she didn’t know what her talent was. She knew she could cook, but didn’t think that was it. Now she sees that this journey of coming to New Orleans and becoming Queen Trini has given her the confidence she lacked in her younger years. “I’ve really come into my own here,” she said. “I cook with passion and joy and love and people say, ‘I can see the love on the plate,’ and that means everything.”