As with anything, the serving of authentic cultural cuisines and street foods gets iterated on time after time to share the same great tastes in reimagined recipes and curated decor. In the case of Jamaican food, think the likes of Miss Lily’s, Negril or Ripe Kitchen & Bar.
However, members of the diaspora opt for local mom and pop take-out restaurants for a true taste of home when it comes to eating out on a regular day. The kind of places that have no varying degrees of spiciness for recipes, don’t dress up homestyle dishes with clever title names, and offer no seating to watch you enjoy it (or not) because your repeat business is the only measure of customer satisfaction—assuming anyone remembers you after just a few visits.
These establishments are scattered all over The Bronx but you’ll find the highest concentration of small Jamaican food shops in the northeast—Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Baychester, Eastchester, Edenwald, and Co-op City specifically.
Regardless of where you’re buying your Jamaican food from, we’ve come up with a complete guide to help you order like a local.
“Di Real Ting”
There are some qualifying characteristics that a take-out Jamaican restaurant needs to have to be considered the real thing. Jerk on the menu and reggae ch’unes playing over head don’t cut it. Here are a few signs you just walked into a real Jamaican food spot:
- The name will be unique, for example: Good Dine or Rocatone
- There is a “Cash Only” sign posted somewhere, usually handwritten
- There will be an ATM machine against the wall in case you just found out it’s “cash only”
- A litter of party flyers featuring local celebrities and fat batty women are going to be present for the picking
- A giant standing fan occupies a corner because ACs burn too much “current” (i.e electricity)
- They’re also selling traditional Jamaican pastries and snacks like (coconut) drops, black cake, carrot cake, and spice bun even though it is not a bakery
- There are bottles of Bigga, Ting and coconut water in the refrigerator
- A surly, straight-faced older man or woman might be hanging out at a table to judge you
Know “Weh Yuh Wan”
Know what you want before you go in or at the very least spend some time studying the menu while you wait. There is zero tolerance for hmm-ing or huh-ing. Hesitation might mean getting ordered over by a more regular customer and others will waste no time ceasing the opportunity to get a spot ahead, especially during a busy hour. If this happens simply reclaim your time politely with the server.
“Yuh Not Nice, Yuh Rude”
Speaking of the server, don’t show these women or men any signs of timidity. Speak clearly and make eye contact—enough to show you belong there but not too much to challenge their authority. A pleasant exchange could even mean an extra half-spoon of rice or piece of meat. And if you get ignored or get attitude at any point in this process don’t take it personally. Consider it a rite of passage. You’ve not earned anyone’s respect or oxtail yet.
Assume they won’t have what you want. Also, know you won’t know that until you ask for it and receive an unapologetic “No jerk” or “Oxtail done” so be prepared with a back up order (or two).
There are 4 included sides that every Jamaican mom-and-pop food spot offers in some combination: cooked cabbage, fried ripe plantains, salad, or avocado (aka “pear”). You might not be asked about a side in which case you get cabbage or you get nothing. You could be asked “vegetable?” in which case you say yes and get cabbage or say no and get nothing. Either way you get cabbage or you get nothing.
If neither is preferable, the pro thing to do is ask for the side you want. Just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean it’s off the table!
Gravy is Coming
Gravy soaked rice is a hallmark of the food servings so be sure to specify how much or little you want and where you want it on your food or else spend the walk/ride home holding the container like you’re waiting to defuse a bomb—a flavor bomb that is.
Photo Credit: Yelp
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