Every once in a while, we are gently reminded to count our blessings. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly. Our recent visit to a little strip plaza restaurant with a big heart in Sharon was just such an occasion.
We met with a faith-filled man named Joseph Altenor. If you’ve read any of our monthly features, you know that faith isn’t something we’ve worked into the story. But today, it would be a disservice to discuss Haitian Sensation, a restaurant and coffee shop at 869 E. State St., without broaching the topic.
Joseph came to the United States in 1984 when he was 19. After spending time in manufacturing in New York City, he was transferred to Sharpsville, Pa.
In 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, his native homeland, Joseph witnessed a fundraising effort led by the children at Case Avenue Elementary School in Sharon. This inspired Joseph to adopt a village in Haiti to support through his restaurant and mission trips.
As Joseph described it, “It gives us an opportunity to help the people in Haiti while also opening our own eyes to how blessed we are here in America. Our project is establishing a Learning Center with the goal of helping the people of this village to be self-sufficient.”
It was genuinely heartwarming to listen to Joseph talk about his faith and the hope to be of service to all who enter his establishment. There was no preachiness here, just honesty.
We couldn’t help but reflect on how clear Joseph was in his priorities. It was refreshing for our two tired (and misanthropic) souls at the end of a workday.
After giving us some nourishment for our spirit, Joseph excused himself and jaunted into the kitchen.
Since Haitian Sensation is both a restaurant and a coffee shop, it was only fitting that he started us off with an iced coffee. Haitian Mountain Blue coffee mixed with housemade creamer and brown sugar cane. Bold coffee flavor with a slight sweetness. It was very tasty.
When talking with Joseph about what he felt we should eat, he told us we needed to try three of his signature dishes: jerk chicken over rice and beans, fried pork with spicy coleslaw and the popular mac and cheese.
First up was the jerk chicken. Joseph takes bone-in chicken and marinates it for 24 to 48 hours in a jerk marinade. The marinade consists of ghost, jalapeno and habanero peppers as well as green onion, thyme, cinnamon, clove, cayenne and some ingredients he didn’t divulge.
The chicken is seared in a hot pan, then braised with tomato paste and the marinade until tender. The beans are made by soaking black beans overnight, then simmering them in the bean water with garlic, onions and spices until tender.
When the dish appeared at our table, the aroma was wonderful. The chicken was falling off the bone, and the sauce was a little spicy. The rice and beans may sound like an afterthought, but these were amazing and the real star of the show. The rice still had a little bite and the beans were tender. The thing that struck us most about this dish was that there were a lot of bold flavors but everything was in perfect, balance. We couldn’t stop eating this superb offering.
Next up was the fried pork with spicy slaw. Chunks of pork shoulder are braised until cooked part-way through, then deep fried. This is served over a delicious coleslaw. The slaw is made with shredded carrot and cabbage, jalapeno, habanero, white vinegar and a pinch of cayenne.
While this sounds like it would be too hot, it wasn’t. The slaw was more tangy from the vinegar than spicy. The pork was crispy and flavorful. A nice combination for a delicious entr e.
Since the dishes were a little hot, Joseph served us an iced tea made from three kinds of Haitian tea leaves, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, mint and brown sugar cane. It was a great counterbalance to the spicy entrees and very refreshing.
We then sampled the mac and cheese. Penne pasta mixed with a homemade cheddar cheese sauce. You can get this topped with meat including pork, chicken and beef.
The pasta was cooked nicely, and the sauce was cheesy. We topped ours with pulled pork, which was tender and smoky from the barbecue sauce. Not sure if this is an authentic Haitian dish, but is certainly is comfort food at its best.
For good measure, Joseph also provided us with a pulled pork sandwich. We added some of the spicy coleslaw to the top, and this was a perfect blend of sweet and spicy.
Haitian Sensation also offers a variety of housemade desserts to please your sweet tooth. We sampled four: bread pudding with warm caramel sauce, rum cake, pineapple upside-down cake and chocolate coconut cake. All were very good, but the bread pudding was outstanding.
Standing outside in the parking lot, it would be easy to dismiss Haitian Sensation. But if you have an empty feeling, whether in your belly or in your soul, you would be doing yourself a favor by opening the door and taking a seat. You will find good food, and a sense of helping others in the process by supporting a man with conviction of doing good service to his patrons and his community, both here and in Haiti. Visit his website www.haitiansensationcoffee.com to learn more about his mission.