Frontline carnival backpack

We’re Jammin’ Still: An Ode to West Indian Restaurants

Carnival revelers on Eastern Parkway
In late January 2020, my husband and I had just arrived back to New York from a vacation in Cartagena, Colombia, and were already fantasizing about our next jaunt. I’ve travelled extensively and had always been meaning to get back to Grenada, a diminutive country in the Caribbean, where I’d visited three years earlier. So when I found a really good deal, I jumped on it. Our excitement was short-lived. Little did I know that our getaway to the Spice Isle was never meant to be.

Many of us expected — or, at least, hoped — that a two week lockdown would ameliorate the current circumstances. Just weeks later, the world we knew vanished, never to be seen again. Since then, I’ve lost count of how many trips and events have been cancelled or planned, yet never brought to fruition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it rains on your Parade

A feathery backpack of a frontline carnival costume
Labor Day Weekend has always been understood to be the unofficial ending of summer, with its culminating barbecues and final days at the beach for the season. If you’re a New Yorker, you know this also means the world renowned J’ouvert and West Indian Day Parade festivities that go on each Labor Day in Brooklyn. For the second year in a row, the City of New York has announced that the much anticipated West Indian Day Parade is cancelled and its preceding J’ouvert activities have been cancelled.

The parade began in Harlem the 1920s as a nod to the world famous Carnival in Trinidad, which takes places in the days leading up to Lent. Of course, here in New York City, Lent coincides with very cold, harsh weather, so the parade was pushed up to the summer months. By the 1960s, neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Crown Heights and Flatbush, began to see a massive (See what I did there?) wave of immigration from the Caribbean from countries like Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada, Haiti, Guyana, and Barbados, among several others.

The parade was subsequently moved to the borough’s revered Eastern Parkway (known to locals simply as “the Parkway”), commencing at Utica Avenue and terminating at Grand Army Plaza. Each year, an estimated 1 to 3 million descend upon the Parkway from the Tristate area to as far as Canada and several Caribbean countries,  and with them, millions of dollars flow into the local economy. While the parade may be cancelled, dozens of private parties and concerts will still take place this weekend. That’s a small consolation to the vendors, costume designers, mas bands, who anticipate that stream of revenue.

Traveling Vicariously Through Food

It’s a colossal understatement to say that life since March 2020 has been challenging.  Difficult for individuals, as well as small local businesses, many of which did not make it and were forced to close due to a combination of circumstances. Being unable to travel, dining out became my go-to activity whenever I felt caged in. Sure, I have my favorite stand-bys. However, this period of time has given me the opportunity to really venture out and try something new. I learned this past year, for example, that I love vindaloo, for example, the spicier the better — who knew? All of this is to say that despite not leaving US soil for the better part of a year and a half, I’ve been able to “travel” vicariously through food.

Let’s be honest: COVID-19 has ravaged the economy in many of our communities and a lot of small businesses are barely holding on. Bars and restaurants have had to adjust to the rapidly shifting protocols the city has put into place, losing money along the way. I wanted to take the time to recognize some of the awesome restaurants I’ve been visiting. Since it is Labor Day Weekend, I thought it was appropriate to list some of my favorite Caribbean restaurants. While you can’t be on the Parkway this year (again, ugh), you can still enjoy amazing West Indian food while supporting local businesses.

Flatbush

MangoSeed/ZuriLee

One of my go-tos after a co-worker put me onto it about four years ago, I’ve been coming back ever since. It would suffice to say that businesses have had to make many adjustments and become creative to stay afloat. Pre-pandemic, ZuriLee and MangoSeed were separate restaurants owned by the three brothers. Once restrictions eased, both restaurants reopened, this time under the same roof, which was is ZuriLee. MangoSeed is known for its modern take on traditional Caribbean meals, while ZuriLee’s forte is brickoven pizza with a West Indian flair. Here, you can get dishes like oxtail pizza and jerk chicken and waffles. They do a brunch on Sundays, featuring bottomless mimosas with flavors like guava and hibiscus, as well as Happy Hour 5 days a week with $5-6 cocktails and sangrias.

Order: For brunch, order the coconut smothered fish and parmesan grits or jerk chicken waffles, for dinner try the Columbia pie, and for drinks I like the spicy Crooklyn or a Sugarcane Lemonade.

755 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11226
Website: https://www.mangoseedbrooklyn.com/
IG: https://www.instagram.com/mangoseedandzurilee/

Sip Unwine

One of the newer kids on the block, Sip Unwine hosts fun activities like karaoke, sip and paint, as well as a weekly brunch with a DJ. Last weekend, for example, they hosted a Women’s Empowerment Brunch on Saturday and a Caribbean Carnival Brunch the following day, featuring staple foods from several islands, such as bake and shark, ackee and saltfish, and tania log. This past November, they were a featured restaurant during New York Tri-State area Black Restaurant Week 2020. They have a wine and cocktail list with Caribbean takes on classics, like the Yaardie Old Fashion.

Order:  For brunch, the loaded jerk fries and eggs, for dinner order the salmon and a side of Trini-style callaloo, and wash it down with a tropical or coconut rum punch.

1197 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11226
Website: https://www.sipunwine.com/
IG: https://www.instagram.com/sipunwine/

Crown Heights

Savannah Cafe

Savannah Cafe is a Black-owned, woman-owned enterprise. Its namesake is Trinidad’s largest park, Queen’s Park Savannah, terminus of its exuberant carnival. Located on one of the more quiet, residential stretches of Utica Avenue, this spot brightens up the block. Sit-down Trinidadian restaurants are a rarity, even in Brooklyn, making this place a standout. Savannah boasts a covered backyard and each table in the restaurant is named after a town or neighborhood in Trinidad. The food menu features favorites, like the mango pineapple chow, pelau, callaloo, and macaroni pie. They have an ambitious drink menu with carnival and Trini-inspired names, like the Mr. Fete, a nod to Soca star Machel Montano‘s hit song, the Dingolay Margarita, and the Maracas Bay.

Order: Drunkman’s Jerk Chicken or Tobago-style stew pork, a side of mango pineapple Chow, and for drinks (They’re strong, don’t say you weren’t warned!) try the Caroni River Mojito, made with coconut or Mr. Fete, a passion fruit-infused cocktail.

75 Utica Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11213
Website: https://savannahcafebklyn.com/
IG: https://www.instagram.com/savannahcafebklyn/

Canarsie

Trini Jam BK Roti Bar & Grill

Located far into Canarsie, Trini Jam is not the kind of place you just stumble upon. Another relative newcomer to the restaurant scene, I saw it on Instagram for months before I decided to make the trek out there from the Bronx, but I’m sure glad I did. Come with an appetite, because you’ll want to try everything on the menu! The inside is airy with a bar with an outdoor dining set up giving off tiki vibes. They often have music, and the times I’ve gone they had a DJ playing a blend of Soca, Dancehall, and other Caribbean rhythms, as well as a steel panist. The drinks are solid with quintessentials like piña coladas and rum punch, as well as more imaginative ones, like the neon-colored Bob Marley, a boozy slushie (Be careful, it creeps up on you!)

Order: Curry chicken with buss up shot (paratha roti), the stew chicken, with sides of the callaloo and calypso mango chow.

9501 Flatlands Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11236
Website: https://www.trinijambk.com/
IG: https://www.instagram.com/trinijambk/

Park Slope

BK9

Opening in 2015, BK9 is located in the shadows of Barclay Center on Park Slope’s main drag, 5th Avenue, an unlikely place for a Caribbean restaurant. The restaurant gets its name from its co-owners, nine childhood friends from Brooklyn of Jamaican, Haitian, and Trinidadian parentage, which is incorporated into the menu.  The fare here has traditional staples, like jerk chicken, as well as modern takes on West Indian dishes and Caribbean takes on American dishes (eggs benedict with plantain, anyone?)

Order: The griot or jerk chicken, with a side of curry mussels, and wash it down a Bajan rum punch (sorrel) or a frozen rum punch (yum!)

62 5th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11217
Website: https://www.bk9.nyc/
IG: https://www.instagram.com/bk9restaurant/

[su_note]What’s your favorite Caribbean spot? Reply in the comments.[/su_note]