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).
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.
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.
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.
5. Charlie's Pastries 4261 W. Commercial Blvd., Tamarac. Call 954-739-9109. This unpretentious bakery is the perfect spot to find a full assortment of the Caribbean nation's plethora of sweet and savory treats, including beef patties, coco bread, and rum cake. Most Americans will be familiar with the iconic Jamaican beef patties; you can find a version of them at 7-Eleven, the neighborhood gas station food counter, or an ethnic market here and there. But in Jamaica, it's not uncommon to eat those same beef patties inside a folded hunk of coco bread, much like a sandwich. The coco bread and patties at Charlie's Pastries are made fresh each day, a soft, white, spongy bread sweetened with coconut milk that sells as fast as doughnuts on a Sunday. Use the fluffy rolls to make the ultimate beef-patty sandwich. If you feel putting bread around a pastry-shell-encased meat patty seems unnecessary, think again. The result is nothing short of fantastic, biting through soft coco bread to get to the crunchy pastry shell. Wash it down with a freshly made sorrel juice, a traditional Caribbean drink made from pressed sorrel flowers flavored with dried orange peel, ginger, and cinnamon.
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6. The Dutch Pot 6029 Kimberly Blvd., North Lauderdale. Call 954-979-1915, or visit dutchpotjamaican.com. At the Dutch Pot Jamaican, it's all about the "pot." According to the restaurant's owners, it's a necessary part of Jamaican cuisine and culture and the only way to produce authentic Jamaican cooking. The pot heats up at an even temperature, meaning it's always consistent. And so is the food. Since 2000, this North Lauderdale restaurant has been feeding its fans some of the best Jamaican cooking in Broward County. What started as a single-burner oven in the backyard has morphed into four locations from Plantation to Lauderhill. Each location offers lunch specials for less than $10, served as a platter of spicy jerk chicken or pork alongside a pile of rice, peas, and plantains. If jerk isn't your thing, there's also curry goat, ackee and saltfish, liver and onions, and callaloo. Caribbean-style sides offer a taste of something different, from fritters and boiled bananas to "bammy" — a traditional Jamaican cassava flatbread.
7. Alexsandra's Caribbean Cafe 235 E. Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Call 954-530-8909, or visit alexsandrascafe.com. Alexsandra's Caribbean Cafe offers a taste of Irie — right near the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. This family-owned eatery has no exterior sign, so keep an eye out for the Jamaican flag above the door instead. The restaurant offers all the standard Jamaican fare, from oxtail to curried goat, everything homemade by chef-owner Sandra Garrick. If you like jerk, you'll be happy to hear you can order this sweet-and-spicy marinade served several ways: as a sandwich, wrap, salad, ribs, and wings — all cooked on a charcoal grill out back by Sandra's husband, Paul. If you're feeling thirsty, wash it all down with one of several milkshakes — thick, creamy, and fruit-studded Caribbean-themed concoctions in flavors like passionfruit-mango, piña colada, or pineapple.
8. Sweet's Sensational 25 SW Fifth Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-865-7086. In Delray Beach, not too far from downtown and the Atlantic Avenue strip, you'll find Sweet's Sensational. This low-key restaurant caters to the nearby neighborhood, offering affordable lunch prices for many of Jamaica's best dishes, as well as a list of daily changing specials. The chef-owner, a smiling Jamaican woman by the name of Ivet "Sweets" Henry, specializes in homemade patties. Baked daily, they're nothing like those greasy bright-yellow things gas stations try to pass off as real food. Available in mild or spicy, each fragrant beef patty is encased in a golden, flaky pocket. We suggest you grab a fresh-baked coco bread too: The soft dough can be split in half, just the right size to stuff a whole patty inside for an authentic Jamaican twist on this popular hand-held, on-the-go meal.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.
Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
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