Venerable restaurant Villa Morales in St. Croix closes its doors….
For the last 70 years or so there was a special little place in Frederiksted, St. Croix that anchored the culturally-distant Latino world to this uniquely Crucian island in the Caribbean. Villa Morales was a staple of both St. Croix’s dining scene and of the island overall. It was here that some of the earliest fusion of Crucian cuisine and Latino dishes began, adding an exotic twist to the island’s familiar food. Not entirely Latino and not entirely Crucian, the menu highlighted the beauty of simplicity and of serious cooks paying close attention to what their island people really wanted. For generations, locals and in-the-know tourists alike have flocked to the modest, indoor/outdoor aquamarine building for their outstanding eats. And perhaps the star of that show was their Conch in Butter Sauce, a sublime blend of small diced conch meat braised in rich butter with a delicate sprinkle of spices and a squirt of lime to elevate the dish to levels previously unknown. The dish became a klieg light to great Virgin Island food, which has since been copied by many but mastered by few (see recipe below). And now it’s gone.
Villa Morales was part of St. Croix’s growth into a haven of exciting food. It started in 1952 as a small Frederiksted joint called Chico’s and ten years later moved to their final resting place just outside of the island’s second city. The restaurant grew as the island grew, serving as a meeting place for social planning and government gatherings where the future of the island was born. It is part of the very taproot of modern St. Croix, reaching deeply into nearly everyone’s lives across the island.
But Angela Morales and husband, Julio Torres, who have been running the place for decades, were getting tired. Then came the 2017 hurricanes. The restaurant survived (though their nearby guest house at Estate Whim did not) and they battled through the island’s recovery, standing strong as a symbol of St Croix’s resilience. Through the island’s devastation and slow recovery, local families still came to Villa Morales for its legendary Spicy Chicken and its Stew Goat, always accompanied by the usual provisions of salad, rice and beans, and potato stuffing. But now that the island is largely rebuilt, revived and healed after that relentless hurricane season, Angela and Julio have decided that their work is done and it’s time for Villa Morales to close. “While we will be glad to get to relax a little bit, we are surely going to miss our regular customers who come in with their families,” said Angela, presumably with a lump in her throat.
There is no shortage of excellent cuisine in St. Croix these days – the island has exploded onto the world’s culinary stage in recent years with the help of creative crucian chefs and mixologists like Digby Stridiron and Frank Robinson. But the closing of Villa Morales nevertheless leaves a hole in the island’s local offerings. Because it was more than just a great restaurant; it was a symbol of St. Croix’s diverse mixture of very well-prepared food, suitable for discerning diners the world over but made for locals to enjoy. It will long remain a shining example of wonderful food cooked with love. RIP: Villa Morales, Frederiksted, St Croix, US Virgin Islands (1952 – 2019)
Crucian Conch in Butter Sauce
5 Conch Steaks (see below)
½ cup (113 g) Unsalted Butter (1 stick)
1 Onion (chopped)
1 Tomato (chopped)
½ tsp Thyme
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
1 Tbsp Cilantro leaves (chopped)
6 cloves Garlic (crushed)
½ tsp Smoked Paprika
¼ tsp Curry Powder
¼ tsp Smoked Chipotle Powder (optional)
¼ tsp Hot Chili Powder (optional)
2 cups Reserved Conch Water (see “Preparing the Conch” below)
3-4 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 lime (for squeezing)
In a medium pot add olive oil, onions, garlic, and spices and stir until onions are just translucent. Salt and pepper to taste. (Note: If you want a spicier flavor, this is when you add the optional hot spices)
Add the tomatoes and cilantro and let the mixture cook down to a soft, blended mixture (about 3 minutes).
Stir the conch into the pot and let cook on medium heat for 1 minute. (Note: see “Preparing the Conch” below)
Add the butter to the pot and cook, stirring until fully melted and incorporated in the mixture.
Add in ¼ cup intervals the reserved conch water and stir gently over low heat to incorporate into a smooth sauce that clings to the meat. Simmer over low heat for up to an hour to reduce the liquid slightly and develop the flavors. Squeeze in lime to brighten the flavors. Serve with rice, mashed yucca, or pretty much any soft starch you want.
Preparing the Conch:
Cleaning fresh conch properly is a process, so if you are lucky enough to find some already cleaned (or even frozen) you might want to go that route and just boil it in enough water to cover for an hour and reserve the liquid for use in the recipe. But if you’re a purist and want un-prepped conch you will need to scrub the skin with cornmeal mixed with fresh lime juice (or white vinegar) to remove the thin, slimy outer membrane. Remove any small dangling flesh from the edges. Cut along the thin line visible beneath the flesh to open up the conch body and rinse out the inside with cold water. Place the conch in already-boiling water for 2 hours, change the water, and do it again to tenderize the meat. Do a third and final boil in fresh boiling water for another hour and reserve the liquid for use in the recipe. The meat should be tender but not mushy (Note: this process can be done in a pressure cooker to cut the time). Once the conch is tender and cool, cut into medium bite-sized cubes and set aside.