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/

What’s your favorite Caribbean spot? Reply in the comments.

Travel Tip and Tales with All Day I Dream of Travel

The clear blue waters of the San Bernardo Islands

The clear blue waters of Colombia’s San Bernardo Islands

Travel Tip and Tales with All Day I Dream of Travel: Shannon Lee Gilstad talks food, her first time boarding a plane in fifteen years, and why she refuses to ditch her 9-to-5 to travel full time.

Playing Favorites

Favorite airline?
KLM and Delta. They gave the best service I’d ever has from an airline when I was returning from Amsterdam. I also recently traveled to Belgium with Delta with my husband (we traveled the evening of the wedding!) and the service was really good.

Favorite city?
Bogotá! I loved here in 2007 and love to go back whenever I can. Colombia as a destination has become popular. However, Medellín and of course, Cartagena, get all the love. Yeah, it’s cooler weather, rains a lot, and isn’t by any beach, but there’s such an awesome nightlife and music/arts culture there.

Favorite beach?
Hard to pick just one. I visited Dickenson Bay in Antigua in July, and the water was so calm and clear! Maho Beach in St. Maarten is really unique. I was on the first flight from the United States since the hurricane back in October 2019 and they were rebuilding, I only got to see small planes landing. However, there are a few cool beach bars and the water is gorgeous. For something not in the Caribbean, I loved Spiaggia di Marina Piccola on the isle of Capri in Italy. The water color in the Mediterranean is so different than what you’d get in the Caribbean. It’s deep, cotton candy turquoise.

Favorite food?
It’s really hard to say– there’s so much variety in New York. Lately, I’ve been really into Indian food. I love chicken vindaloo— the spicier, the better! I can honestly say that there’s no cuisine I will not eat. Colombian, Thai, Trinidadian, Chinese, and Ecuadorian top my list. I’m also a big fan of jerk chicken and pork. My friend makes his home made and it’s better than any jerk pork I’ve ever eaten.

Local Travel, Tampa, & Travel Blogging

If you couldn’t ever travel again but could pick any city to be confined to, where would you pick?
Probably New York, my home. I’ve lived here almost my entire life, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. I could take day trips around town, as I do now. As much as New York is becoming increasingly gentrified and homogenized, there are some neighborhoods where you feel like you’re in China, Russia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Ireland…

What was the first trip you took as an adult?
Tampa, Florida. It was winter break senior year of college and I was stir crazy. Miami was still exorbitantly expensive for a broke student, so I found a cheap deal to Tampa for a few days. I hadn’t been on a plane since I was six at that point and here I am going off alone. I walked around the city all day and figured out how to use the bus system. I was able to take one up to Temple Terrace where I went kayaking on the Hillsborough River. Got close to the alligators. That was probably the highlight.

 Any common travel/travel blogger wisdom that you disagree with?
Hmmm. I really do not support the whole, “Quit your job and get paid to travel the world” bandwagon that so many people have jumped on. The truth is, most of those people came from affluent or at least middle-class backgrounds. In many cases, the jobs that they quit were corporate gigs paying six figures. I just read something the other day that 44% of Americans earn about $18,000. Where is the income to just drop it all and travel?

I understand the allure of “leaving it all behind” to travel. However, I wonder about their plans for retirement if they aren’t making a steady income as a “digital nomad.” I know a few people who have done just that and the truth is, some of them are struggling.  If you have money saved or wealthy parents, you can afford to take that risk and what might come with it. This is just not realistic for most people.

Stay tuned for more travel tips and tales…

What Does Travel Have to Do with Blood Donation? A lot, Apparently

Several years ago, when I got over the fear of needles, on a whim, I donated blood. I’m a liar— I’ve never gotten over my fear of needles. It all started with that New York Blood Center mobile unit parked in front of the movie theater on Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn. I’m unsure of why it suddenly occurred to me to stop, but since then, I’ve donated.

Fast forward to 2017, my employer offered a program where New York Blood Center came on site on a quarterly basis so that staff could donate. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. To sweeten the deal (literally), we were offered unlimited cookies, chips, and juice, and could earn a few hours comp time. I was sold.

Enter Punta Cana

Each time I donated blood, a nurse would have me answer a questionnaire asking about my personal health and habits. Was I an intravenous drug user? Negative. Have I ever tested positive for one of several diseases listed? No, again. What about blood transfusions? Nope. Here was an interesting one: What countries have I visited in the past three years? Maybe we should start with where I haven’t traveled to. You might want to sit down for this one…

“Belgium…Antigua…France. Wait, do we have to do this in alphabetical order?”

Up until this point, I hadn’t really thought much about the implications of this question. I was upfront with my answers, almost amused by how many countries I could list.

“Cuba, uh, Colombia…Panama. Dominican Republic.”

“Hold on…Dominican Republic? What part?,” the nurse asked.

“Well, Santo Domingo, Punta Cana, Puerto…”

“Let me check the list…” (nurse begins anxiously combing through a computerized database)

I’d seen that look before. That look told me that I was about to receive news I didn’t want to hear. What was she possibly looking up and what would she say? I sat awkwardly in my seat.

“So, I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to give blood today, Shannon.”

“What? Why?”

“Dominican Republic is on our list of countries with high risk of malaria.”

“Malaria?! Do I look like I have malaria to you?”

“So, even resort areas of Dominican Republic are on this list. What date did you arrive and leave?” (she looks at a calendar)

“October 10th, maybe? No. Maybe the 12th to the 14th? Columbus Day Weekend.”

“You cannot give blood until… (still trying to calculate something, looking at the calendar) October 14th, 2020.”

“Wait, what?! I’ve been to Dominican Republic four times in the last year and a half and have never heard this. In fact, I gave blood at the last drive here three months ago and this was never mentioned.”

The nurse looks at me sympathetically and apologetically asks if I’d like her to speak to her boss “just to make sure.”

“Yes, please do because I’ve been travelling for over a decade and I’ve never heard of such a thing until now.”

The nurse comes back with supervisor who reiterates what I’ve just been told about not being able to donate blood for nearly a calendar year. I was given a document wit this date on it and left dejected. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.

More About Malaria Than You Ever Wanted to Know

What was odd is that I’d gone for something like 13 years without ever being rejected from a blood drive. Why? I mean, I lived and traveled in the humid jungles of Colombia, for God’s sake. I even had a Colombian roommate who, as a child, lived in Cartagena, and she and her young brothers actually contracted dengue. Yes, dengue, the mosquito-borne disease. But according to the list NY Blood Center uses, Cartagena isn’t an area known for malaria. But Punta Cana is.

So, wait: you mean to tell me that everybody who heads down south for a wedding, bachelor party, or just some fun in the sun is banned from donating for a full year? Yup. It typically takes one to four weeks, usually more like one to two weeks, to show symptoms. It is possible to contract malaria and not show signs; it can remain dormant in your system for up to a year (which is why they wouldn’t want you to donate blood during this period.)

Where does one acquire malaria? Short answer: pretty much all over the globe wherever there are hot, humid climates. However, not every place is at risk. For example, Guatemala is, yet Costa Rica is not. Dominican Republic apparently is at risk with the exception of Santo Domingo city. However, Cuba, interestingly enough, is not, nor is Jamaica, Cayman Islands, or the Bahamas. Go figure.

Here’s the list of countries that New York Blood Center— probably others –use to determine if you’re at risk of malaria.

I guess you could blame this solely on my ignorance or naïveté. I didn’t do my homework. Well, I’ve since done some research and figured I’d save you the time. Don’t make the same mistake I made. The more you know…

Ireland is Wet and Other Obvious Observations

If there were one adjective to describe Ireland, it wouldn’t be “green” — it would be “wet.”

The Emerald Isle, the land of my bloodline, is a green, damp country. From the moment I landed in Dublin, the sky was grey and full of heavy clouds.

And boy, did it rain. Everyday it rained, and the one day it didn’t rain (inKillarney), it snowed. The two pairs of tennis shoes I’d packed were waterlogged within minutes. It’s a known fact (well, I didn’t know at the time) that Wellies are a quintessential piece of any Irish wardrobe. By that time I’d decided to head over to Penneys, the Irish equivalent of K-Mart, and buy myself a pair of the rubber boots for about €15.

The next morning I set out to Cork, the land of my ancestors. Though not the sole purpose of my trip, my grandfather came to New York City from Skibbereen, a pretty town in southwest County Cork, close to the sea, and just under two hours from city.

Cork City is a smallish, walkable city of under 200,000 people and the second largest in the Republic (Galway is third.) I used it as my homebase for a few days go exploring on day trips. Many places in Ireland are only accessible by bus, but Cork is fully equipped with both a bus and train station. If you know me, you know I love a bus, train, or plane excursion (in fact, sometimes even more so than the actual destination.) My love of train rides was the catalyst for my impulsively buying a ticket and hopping a train to Cobh late one afternoon.

 Welcome to Cobh

Cobh (pronounced “Cove”) is a village on the coast, just a short distance from Cork City. A colorful town, St. Colman’s, an imposing church sits on the hill above neat lines of houses. As dusk set upon me, I found myself in a hotel restaurant where I ordered a full Irish breakfast. Wasting no time at all, I scarfed down the plate.

Afterwards, what seems like just moments later, I stumbled upon a small bar. Not one to let an opportunity pass to consume a national, if not cliched, beverage, I ordered a night cap: an Irish coffee with Irish whiskey. As I chatted with some of the local men, I admired a curated bulletin board of photos.

The board depicted different eras in the town’s history. Maybe it was sentimentality — or maybe it was the whiskey. It dawned on me that my own grandfather had boarded his own ship here, New York-bound, decades before, as most Irish did. It left me a bit bit teary-eyed in considering what life was like here in the late 1920s, when my grandfather left Ireland.

The locals were very friendly and eager to chat with me, but it was getting late and I needed to catch my train back to the city soon. But first, I needed to hit the head. Everything was going just according to plan despite there not being one.

It’s Not Rain

Then I got to flush the toilet. That’s where it went downhill fast. I notice that my phone is missing, but quickly locate it…in the toilet bowl. Completely submerged.

Well, isn’t this grand?, I thought. Unlike some travelers who invest in a new SIM card, allowing them to use their phone abroad, mine served as my watch, calculator, alarm clock, and a WiFi gateway to the world. This was the beginning of 2012, so it was a Blackberry (don’t laugh.) I’d gotten rid of my landline years ago and relied heavily on that phone for work. Now I couldn’t even turn the phone anymore.

After a day it eventually did turn on, but acted up and was never the same. Like my two pairs of musty tennis shoes, my phone was permanently wet…like Ireland.

How Do I Get Money to Travel?: Part II

My last article, How Do I Get Money to Travel?, looked at ways to cut expenses so that the money could be used for other things: travel. We took a look at a few areas that you are probably wasting or overspending in, such as cable, eating out, and banking fees. The idea was to cut costs and put the difference into a savings account earmarked just for travel. I’m making the assumption that you have some source of income.

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How Do I Get Money to Travel?

One of the biggest questions I get is, how do I get the money to travel?

Good question.

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