#Truth: Caribbean people are really picky about Caribbean restaurants, especially those outside the region.
We love our food. We think it’s THE BEST. No one can bubble a pot like our grandmothers/mothers/aunts. And even if you try to replicate it somewhere else in the world, it just never tastes as good because…the seasoning. So when we get recommendations for “great Caribbean restaurants” located beyond our borders, we take them with a grain of salt (pun intended).
That was the case when I read about some amazing West Indian joints that were changing the Caribbean food scene in New York. My source was this New York Times article, but as much as I respect the holy grail of journalism, the doubting-Debbie in me couldn’t help but wonder how attuned the author’s tastebuds were to truly authentic Caribbean cooking.
Thus, I gave myself the challenge of sampling the menus of the spots that most piqued my interest – a tough job but someone had to do it.
For each restaurant I conquered on my gastronomic mission, my tastebuds became increasingly ecstatic to discover that while the menus might be more sophisticated and the decor may be more mainstream, the food remains true to their West Indian roots. As such, I can, without reservation recommend these 5 Caribbean restaurants in New York City, tested and approved by a true West Indian. You absolutely need to try them the next time you’re craving authentic, well-seasoned dishes that taste just as good as if they had been prepared in your grandmother’s kitchen.
The Food Sermon
The Food Sermon is a name that raises expectations so I tried to manage mine for this excursion. My tastebuds were pleased to discover that this was a clear case of realistic-promising and over-delivering. It’s small. It’s quaint. And it’s succulent boneless jerk chicken on brown rice with red beans drizzled with a scrumptious coconut ginger sauce spoke to my tongue in languages previously unknown. Indeed, it delivered me from the mundane jerk experiences of the past. I sipped on their home made sorrel from a mason jar – my new favorite drinking vessel – and accepted that it was not at all blasphemous to enjoy this beverage outside of the traditional Christmas season. Wisely, they paired their simple but delicious menu with trendy, cozy decor, creating a chill Caribbean restaurant with a cute cottage vibe that made the multiple bus rides to Crown Heights worth it.
Eat: Any of the dish combos topped with the coconut ginger sauce!
Cool points: Paintings depicting traditional Caribbean scenes on sale | Distressed yellow bureau as cash register counter | Collection of recipe books featuring cuisine from around the world
Address: 179 Rogers Ave, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Pearl’s eclectic interior reflects the charming eccentricities of its Williamsburg location, while it’s delicious menu is a fitting tribute to its Caribbean roots. This Caribbean restaurant serves up many dishes, including bake sandwiches with various fillings; jerk chicken; and a plantain in tamarind sauce appetizer that has forever altered the way I consume plantain. I sampled the bake and shark, dressed with the mandatory tamarind sauce, garlic sauce and chadon beni – biting into it was like biting into a piece of Maracas Beach right there in the hipster capital of New York, it was that good. After careful consideration, I paired my sandwich with their Sorrel Shandy (sorrel juice with Carib beer) and the outcome was pure yummmmm…
Eat: Plantain in tamarind sauce, bake and shark
Drink: Sorrel Shandy
Cool points: Music mural featuring lyrics, song title and the names of popular Caribbean artistes | Retro boom box collection | Red, yellow and green ceiling fans and lights | Enamel dishes every Caribbean grandmother had in their kitchen at some point.
Address: 178 North 8th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Miss Lily’s Soho
While a lot of dine-in Caribbean restaurants have moved away from the traditional Afro-Caribbean decor, Miss Lily’s unapologetically showcases her roots. Red, yellow and green cover table tops and signs, African mud cloth serves as upholstery, and a rotation of soca, reggae and dancehall play throughout the day. It’s a new-school joint that takes you back to the old-school Caribbean spots on Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues. The only difference is, this gem is located in Soho. The menu is clear-cut Caribbean: jerk, curry and stew flavored just enough to be effective but not overpowering. The rice-and-peas is tender, the fried plantain is firm but moist, and the diverse offerings from the legendary Melvin’s Juice Box are all worth sampling. NB: Portions are large, especially if you’re having the 1/2 jerk chicken, so consider ordering multiple items and sharing.
Eat: Jerk chicken with sides of rice and peas and fried plantain
Drink: Orange juice, Green Light
Cool points: Star spangled banner in Jamaica’s national colors of green, black and gold | Extensive photo collection of Grace Jones | Private dining room
Address: 130 Houston Street, Manhattan
Grandchamps was a wild card for me as I’ve never had Haitian cuisine before. To get a good variety I tried the Fritai: a platter with sweet potato fries, griot (pork), accra and plantain. The accra was long not round, the plantain was pounded not sliced, and the fries were large wedges not strips but they all tasted almost as great as the pork, which I couldn’t get enough of. All the yum! It was a lot for just one person, so get this if you plan to share. Decor wise, Grandchamps avoided the traditional island vibe, opting for dark wooden furniture, small floral center pieces, and industrial fixtures. But that’s OK, because the aromas escaping the kitchen remind you that the food is 100% West Indian.
Eat: Fritai with griot
Drink: I was too thirsty so I only had water – oops. But it came in a mason jar so that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?
Cool points: Open shelf with grocery items | Grandchamps branded items for sale
Address: 197 Patchen Ave, Bed Stuy
Negril Village is the only spot on this list that wasn’t new to me but you can’t publish a list featuring great Caribbean restaurants in New York without it. Ten years and counting, it’s a trend-setter and bar-raiser when it comes to Caribbean cuisine in the Big Apple. Chic, trendy and sleek, this is where you go when you’re in the mood for fine dining and a lot of dancing. Enjoy a delicious dinner in the upstairs dining room then retire to the Rhum Lounge downstairs to dance those calories away! Specializing “New York Savvy Caribbean Cuisine”, they feature a mouthwatering jerk rubbed chicken. Their drinks menu includes a sorrel colada which, sadly, I wasn’t able to sample myself but based on past experience I imagine it has to be deeelicious!
Eat: Jerk chicken, sweet fried plantain
Drink: Sorrel colada
Cool points: Lounge with in-house DJ playing soca, dancehall and reggae all night long!
Address: 70 West 3rd Street, Manhattan
It was a pleasure to see the way Caribbean restaurants have evolved over the half a century since the wave of immigrants first arrived in New York. Especially since the food remains as tasty as ever. Do you have a favorite West Indian spot in New York? Tell me about it in the comments and I’d love to check out more new spots during my next visit!