Treasure islands: a Caribbean eats guide

One of the house specialties at Island Restaurant is Escovich Fish. Photo by Chris Cutro.
One of the house specialties at Island Restaurant is Escovich Fish. Photo by Chris Cutro.

If you’ve been in Miami for any period of time, you’re probably familiar with Cuban, Puerto Rican and maybe even Dominican food. But the non-Hispanic Caribbean offers spicy concoctions of curries, peppers, fruits and vegetables you may have never heard of and meats you may not be used to eating. Time to expand your palate and give your taste buds a cultural immersion. You’ll be delighted to discover what you’ve been missing.

Dave Jamaican Bakery and Restaurant

At Dave’s, they like to spice things up. The stew peas (red kidney beans stewed with dumplings and pig tails and served with rice) is excellent, and it definitely has a kick to it. Even the flavorful, flaky-crusted, mild beef patties are equivalent to what some places label as hot. You might want to cool your mouth down with grain nut or rum raisin ice cream, available in pints and half gallons.

The award-winning curry goat is worth a try, and so are the freshly baked fruit buns and hardo bread (sourdough). For a grab-and-go meal, a variety of patties, ackee loafs and callaloo loafs are hot and ready. The few Chinese-Jamaican specials include veggie egg rolls, pork and ham choy and sui mein. Before you leave, grab a handful of Chinese candies or Jamaican sweets, such as busta, icy mints and ginger mints, and stuff your pockets for a dollar.

700 NW 183 St., Miami; 305-652-1231

Joy’s Roti Delight

In the epicenter of South Florida Caribbean cuisine, which is often referred to as “Jamaica Hill” instead of Lauderhill because of its large Jamaican population, is a Trinidadian standout. As a testament to its enduring popularity, especially among the local Trini crowd, the restaurant has had the same menu since it opened 16 years ago, according to manager Pradeep Sawh. Joy’s serves up chipotle burrito-sized rotis with nine different kinds of fillings, including goat, conch, oxtail and vegetables. If you order the chicken, avoid the boneless and stick with the juicier dark meat. Be careful with the scotch bonnet hot sauce, it’ll send you running for a cold drink.

This is one place where you don’t want to skip the appetizers. If you have nothing else, try the doubles, a flat fried bread filled with curried garbanzo beans and served with a mango-tamarind sauce that’s very mild and slightly sweet with a hint of spice and cilantro. Soak in the soca and chutney music while you wash it all down with a bottle of ginger or sorrel-flavored Shandy (beer mixed with ginger ale) and you’ll feel like you’re in the islands.

1235 N. State Road 7, Lauderhill; 954-587-7700

Island Restaurant & Variety Food Store

Half sit-down restaurant, half Jamaican grocery, enjoy a meal here and then buy all the ingredients to take home and make it yourself. Fresh plantains, yams and green bananas spill over from boxes stacked alongside the cashier, while canned peas, cheese and a variety of buns and spices fill the shelves. Come early or come late, the store is open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and a breakfast menu including ackee and salt fish, mackerel rundown and Johnnycakes is served on the weekends. Their patties are popular, so you’ll need to arrive early for one of those.

Eight types of soup, including red peas, fish tea and mannish water (goat head soup) are boiling hot, and all the typical entrees, such as curry chicken, oxtail and escovitch fish (fried fish marinated in vinegar and onions) are offered and come with white rice or rice and peas, plus fried plantains and salad. In the mood to be adventurous? Try the cow foot stew. Finish your meal with a slice of sweet potato pudding, bread pudding or rum cake for dessert.

10201 Hammocks Blvd, Miami; 305-388-5118

Sybil’s Bakery & Restaurant

Though geographically a part of South America, politically, culturally and gastronomically Guyana is a part of the Caribbean. A New York transplant, Sybil’s branched south to Miami three years ago, according to Manager Andre Bernard.

Guyanese cuisine is similar to Trinidadian cuisine with a heavy focus on curry and roti. The dhal puri roti is rolled with split peas and is served with the curried meats. The paratha roti, also known as oil roti or “buss-up shot,” is served plain and can be ordered on the side of any meal. It especially goes well with veggies. But for a true Guyanese experience, you must try the pepper pot. The country’s national dish is a stew of boneless beef, oxtail and cow foot. It gets its sweet and spicy flavor from a combination of cinnamon, cloves, hot red peppers and cassareep, a molasses-like syrup made from cassava root. The dish is traditionally served at Christmastime, but lucky for you, Sybil’s carries it year-round. And the meat at Sybils is halal, meaning that it’s permissible according to Islamic law.

For a drink and dessert in one, the sugary, creamy, milk- or soy-based peanut punch is akin to drinking Reese’s Pieces. If that’s not your thing, sample one of the many freshly baked pastries. The currant roll, a soft, flaky pastry rolled with flavorful currants (similar to raisins), and the cassava pone, with coconut flakes mixed into the soft, dense cassava, are both great choices.

20725 NW 2nd Ave, Miami; 305-650-8899; closed Mondays

The Bahamian Pot

With walls of Bahamian blue, a nautical theme carries throughout the restaurant, from the old fishnets that dangle from the walls to a mural of crashing ocean waves and swaying palm trees. Owner Trudy Ellis hails from Nassau, where seafood, particularly fish and conch, is the heart of every meal. The most popular breakfast on the menu is boiled fish, grits and a side of Johnnycake, which looks like a slice of bread topped with butter, but has a cake-like consistency. Sweet, warm and divinely moist, it tastes similar to cornbread, though it is flour-based. For lunch or dinner, the steamed conch, stewed with tomatoes and bell peppers, is a crowd-pleaser. Fried fish is served whole and goes well with a side of potato salad or coleslaw. The conch fritters made by Ellis’ daughter are in such high demand that they’re sometimes advertised with a sign on the door.

At $14.45, the conch dinner is one of the most expensive things on the menu, but don’t blame it on Ellis. She said the price of conch has gone from $5 per five-pound box when she opened the restaurant 20 years ago, to more than $65 a box. To compensate, and to cater to the requests of the locals, she’s expanded the menu over the years to include less expensive Southern staples such as fried pork chops, barbeque chicken, okra and collard greens. But of course, the seafood is still the star of the show.

Much like Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, you never know who you’ll see dining at this listening post in the heart of Liberty City. You may be sitting just a few feet away from a city commissioner or the pastor of a local church, so keep your ears open. Oh, and bring cash; The Bahamian Pot doesn’t take credit.

1413 NW 54th St, Miami; 305-693-5053

Island Delight

If you love curry and don’t have a Jamaican grandmother to cook for you like I do, head to Island Delight for spicy curry chicken that is full of flavor. Order your ackee and salt fish with a side of “food,” a collective term for starchy foods such as boiled green bananas, yam and flour dumplings. Cooks can skip the trip to the supermarket, and buy frozen cubed goat meat, oxtail and whole snapper here. Canned ackee, instant cornmeal porridge and water crackers ar

e among the items you will find on the shelves.

12618 N. Kendall Dr, Miami; 305-598-0770

Island Spice

Jamaican dishes make up only a fraction of the menu at this Chinese-Jamaican restaurant, but they’re worth noting. The tender oxtail and curry goat are highlights. The jerk chicken packs a decent amount of heat, but could be smokier. The full range of Chinese offerings include chop sueys, chow choys, lo meins and chow meins, plus some Chinese-Jamaican specialties like pork and ham choy and escovitch chicken wings. Lobster is available all day curried, in oyster or sweet and sour sauce, or Cantonese-style. If you have a big group, order takeout because there isn’t much seating.

12061 SW 117 Ave., Miami; 786-242-1338

Tap Tap

Step inside Tap Tap on South Beach and be transported into a work of art far from the poolside poshness of the Delano and the velvet ropes of Mansion. Everything is splashed with vibrant hues of blue, red, yellow, orange and green, from the hand-painted chairs, tables and fan blades to the intricate beaded tapestries that cover the walls with images of people, flowers and Haitian vodou spirits. Even the tiles on the floor form a mosaic of slithering snakes. Adding to the ambiance, every Thursday and Saturday a live band plays jazz, blues and Haitian roots music.

The menu is in English and Creole, so you can practice your language skills. For an appetizer, try a comforting bowl of pumpkin soup (soup joumou) or goat tidbits with watercress dipping sauce (taso kabrit). For the main course, the grilled conch is very chewy and a little tough, so go with the stewed conch instead. Or skip the conch altogether and try the stewed goat (kabrit nansos) or fried pork chunks (griyo). The whole fish in a scotch bonnet lime sauce or shrimp in creole sauce are also solid choices.

Before you order, be sure to ask what specials may not be on the menu. All dinners are served with white rice or rice and beans and a fried plantain, similar to tostones. For an extra side order, the spinach in coconut sauce is very popular. The portions are sized about right – enough to fill your belly, but not enough to take home. Desserts include banana fritters sprinkled with sugar (benyen), Haitian cake (gato ayisyen) and a sweet potato pudding (pain patat) that leaves many guests raving.

Take note: Street parking can be difficult to find, and the restaurant is only open for dinner.

819 5th St, Miami Beach; 305-672-2898

Jamaica Kitchen

Another Chinese-Jamaican hotspot, Jamaica Kitchen offers a delicious selection of all of the island’s the favorite dishes, from jerk pork to curry goat. You can order entrees in lunch or dinner portions or get a pint or quart of just the entrée without the sides, which comes in handy for get-togethers or family dinners. For larger events, catering is available. There are daily soup specials and a variety of patties, including lobster, vegetable and callaloo and saltfish. Try the plantain tarts, a patty-like dessert pastry filled with sweet, ripe plantains.

8736 SW 72 St, Miami; 305-596-2585; closed Sundays