It seems fitting that Jamaica's official motto, "Out of many, one people," serves equally well to describe the nation's melting-pot cuisine. This is one culture where you can truly taste the country's history in its food, from jerk chicken and curry goat to stew peas and rum cake.
Today, the island nation's population has been distilled into a single cuisine flavored with plenty of indigenous culture. There's a Latin flare in the escovitch, a dish of poached or fried fish in a citrus marinade reminiscent of the Spanish colonizers' escabeche, while beef patties are an island-style empanada. Jamaican curries feature Indian spices and are often served with roti bread or a sweet, coconut-based dough. Steamed callaloo, ackee, and breadfruit are said to have roots in West African cuisine.
Luckily, Jamaican ex-pats looking for tastes of home have plenty to keep them satiated in South Florida. Here, you won't find a concentrated Caribbean corridor or "Little Jamaica" for a neighborhood selection of this nation's food, so we scoured both counties in search of the best Jamaican restaurants and found these gems scattered across neighborhoods including Lauderhill and Pembroke Pines in Broward County and Greenacres and Delray Beach in Palm Beach County.
1. Kersmon Caribbean Cuisine 4622 Jog Road, Greenacres. Call 561-968-5656. This long-standing bistro in Greenacres serves some of the best Jamaican food around, cooked up by chef-owner Althea Drummond. Here, the Negril native prepares everything that leaves her small kitchen herself, from harder-to-find traditional dishes like cow foot to — on occasion — a Rastafarian vegetable dish known as Ital stew. These vegetables are sautéed without salt or meat but taste as though they have both, arriving tender and fragrant, submerged in a buttery-rich sauce. Rather than the boring cabbage side you'll get at most Jamaican restaurants, Drummond's are cooked into a colorful, herb-laced blend (as are many of her vegetarian dishes). Just be sure to call ahead to order her specialties like whole escovitch snapper, also prepared curried or in a a traditional Jamaican brown-stew sauce. You'll need a touch of patience for the rich oxtail and beans platter or ackee and saltfish, a dish that blends creamy yellow-fleshed ackee fruit into a hearty sauté with salt cod, resulting in a delicate, buttery flavor and a soft, fluffy texture. Her jerk is the best dish here, however, tender pieces of whole chicken submerged in a rich brown sauce as thick as gravy, with enough heat to flush your cheeks. It delivers a slow burn, each bite redolent of the jerk's pimento, clove, cinnamon, garlic, and ginger base (but don't worry, it's balanced enough that it won't burn away your taste buds).
Mannish water, or goat head soup.
Photo by Nicole Danna
2. Chelly's Jamaican Restaurant 9160 W. Commercial Blvd., Sunrise. Call 954-586-5077. Chelly's in Sunrise serves Jamaican comfort food at its best. All the staples — from oxtail and escovitch snapper to jerk chicken, cow foot, and stew peas — are solid. The country's famous brown-stew chicken is an entry-level dish that's easy on the spice and heat index for the uninitiated, and stands as one of the best in the area, served in a deep puddle of gravy-like brown sauce along with a side of stewed cabbage. It comes in a conch version too if you're looking for something a bit more exotic. Be sure to try the gungo soup; you'll be hard-pressed to find this hearty pigeon pea stew flavored with pimento, peppers, thyme, and salted pig's tail anywhere else in South Florida. It's served with a side of fresh dumplings that, while often an overcooked afterthought at other eateries, are salty-sweet here, deep-fried balls that offer a balance of satisfying crunchy exterior and gummy interior. That makes them perfect for mopping up the last of that soup — or even the juices in your ackee and saltfish and jerk chicken.
Jerk chicken at Curly's Caribbean Flava.
Photo by Nicole Danna
3. Curly's Caribbean Flava 1892 Abbey Road, West Palm Beach. Call 561-434-7077. The restaurant does a brisk takeout business, but there's a table and a short counter at the window to eat at if you're so inclined. The most popular items here are standard Jamaican dishes: jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish, or curry goat, and a stellar fried chicken. Despite the warm weather, Jamaicans have a penchant for hearty, hot soups, and owner Ryan "Curly" Golaub does several. The menu has more exotic options like cow foot — a velvety, beefy rich broth thickened with bone marrow. If the gelatinous texture is too much for you to finish a whole serving, use the leftovers to get an amazingly rich broth (or just order the cow's-foot soup). There are also several other soups, a new one made each day. On Monday and Thursday, it's chicken flavored with pumpkin; on Tuesday, it's beef; and Wednesday, you'll get a chowder-like conch. But come Friday, it's a traditional mannish water, or goat head soup, a favorite of Curly's Jamaican customers. Last, no culinary escapade of Jamaica is complete without a coconut water or Caribbean fruit juice, here made locally out of Fort Lauderdale by Da Jus Mon. And whatever you do, don't leave without a taste of the restaurant's rum cake; it's chewy-dense, the color of molasses, and the consistency of fudgy brownies with a spicy, mellow flavor.
Photo courtesy of Jerk Machine
4. Jerk Machine 317 SW Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-440-4556, or visit jerkmachine.com. Where can you find the best jerk in town? At Jerk Machine, of course, a humble eatery specializing in the Jamaican-style barbecue dish. Here, owners Desmond and Catherine Malcolm — both Jamaican natives who relocated to South Florida in the 1980s — have created a strong following for their jerk-focused fare. What began as a catering gig (their own wedding in 1982) has since grown to four locations from the Lauderhill original to Miami's Sun Life Stadium. Today, the restaurant is famous for its smoky, spicy jerk chicken — as well as jerk pork and oxtail. But you haven't lived until you try Jerk Machine's specialty: the jerk stew peas, a salty-sweet rich stew of red beans and beef flavored with coconut milk and salted pig's tail.