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Island Fare: More Caribbean food in Chicago

Trinidadian, Jamaican, and more

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Cafe Trinidad
557 E. 75th | 773-846-8081

$$ CARIBBEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO

This superfriendly family-run enterprise traffics in the flavors of Trinidad, which have been influenced over the centuries by African, East Indian, Creole, Syrian, Lebanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese cooks. "Brown down" stews—begun with a caramelized sugar base—and rich, spicy curries dress slow-cooked meats like jerk chicken, goat, beef, and oxtails and are accompanied by rice and pigeon peas. Alternatively, most of these can be ordered wrapped in a fresh fried roti, a circle of soft flatbread that can withstand a considerable portion bulked up with a mild potato-and-chickpea curry. Fat, snappy shrimp popped under the tooth, and curry crab and dumplings were similarly fresh. These all came with a choice of filling sides—sweet potatoes, callaloo, red beans and rice, collards, macaroni pie, plantains. The bright, sparkling space adorned with Trinidadian flags and lively with island tunes has a lot of nice house-made touches like the sweet and deadly Scotch-bonnet hot sauce and drinks like mauby, an unforgiving, bitter, and debatably restorative cold infusion made from the steeped bark of the carob tree. I had more appreciation for the sweet, bracing, and uncontroversially refreshing ginger beer, or sorrel, a fruity purple punch brewed from the hibiscus blossom. —Mike Sula

Calypso Cafe
5211 S. Harper | 773-955-0229

$ CARIBBEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

This sibling of Dixie Kitchen—now carrying DK menu items since the Hyde Park location closed—pleases with its sunny fare. Tropical decor sets a cheerful tone that's mirrored in the lively flavors of appetizers like spicy jerk chicken wings, plantain chips with cumin-spiked black beans, and conch fritters. Entrees such as peppered perch and glazed pork chops come with sweet plantains, vegetables, and house-prepared Dixie coleslaw. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Caribbean American Bakery
1547 W. Howard | 773-761-0700

$10 AM-7:30 PM MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

Beef pies—flaky packets stuffed with mildly spiced ground beef—are the real draw at this large Rogers Park bakery, and there's frequently a crowd of customers awaiting a fresh batch; flat, white coco bread is meant to accompany the pies. Most of the other island-inspired offerings here are sweet: bulla (spice cake), totoes (coconut buns), spice buns, and yellow cake. This is a temporary location while the bakery's facility at 1539 W. Howard is renovated; the owner hopes to return soon. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Good to Go Jamaican Jerk and Juice Bar
1947 W. Howard | 773-381-7777

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

This budget-chic storefront across from the drab gray facade of an Evanston Police Department outpost serves moist, succulent jerk chicken and pork with some of the best smoke flavor you can get on the north side—no wonder the counterman wasn't giving up any trade secrets. There are all the Jamaican standards here—brown stew chicken, curry goat, oxtail, cow foot, and red snapper, served en escabeche or steamed—and I just might hike up again to try the fish-tea or cow-skin soup ("very chewy," said the counterman, comfortable disclosing that much). There's now wine and beer on offer in addition to juices and smoothies including the Iron Man (carrots, beets, and ginger), the Lady Love (cucumber juice and ginger), and, inevitably, the One Love (carrot, apple, and ginger). —Kate Schmidt

Ja' Grill
1008 W. Armitage | 773-929-5375

$$ JAMAICAN, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, THURSDAY TILL 1

Rogers Park, Chatham, Maywood—all areas whose lucky residents have easy access to excellent home-style island food. Now Lincoln Park does too. Ja' Grill chef Errol Gallimore, who came here from Jamaica in 1992, learned to cook from his mother and did time in south-side restaurants before he was tapped to run the kitchen at this comfortable barstaurant. The few faults I found with his food don't seem to be a result of underestimating the neighborhood's tastes. Jerk chicken, accompanied by a sharp, vinegary jerk sauce in hot or mild, was passable, but it just didn't have the ethereal smokiness and juiciness of its counterpart at, say, Tropic Island. And stewed chicken was a bit dry despite its nice dark brown stew sauce. But the seafood dishes I tried were terrific: a grouper escoveitch piled with julienned vegetables was biting and fruity, jerk catfish had the smokiness and spice the chicken lacked, and a murky fish soup with pumpkin, cho cho (chayote), and house-made dumplings had a powerful kick. My favorite dish, though, was the simple, soft cabbage and carrots steamed in coconut milk. The owner, Tony Coates, stopped by our table to encourage us to suck every scrap of deliriously rich meat off the oxtails—not like we needed the extra motivation. This is a nice quiet spot for lunch, with old-school reggae on the sound system, but on weekend nights it's bumping, with a DJ in the downstairs lounge and revelers drinking up the house rum punch, made with three kinds of rum and three tropical juices. The kitchen's open till 11 PM Friday and Saturday. —Mike Sula

Jamaica Jerk
1631 W. Howard | 773-764-1546

$$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO

It's a neighborhood standby and a welcome bright spot on a skanky stretch of Howard, but the food here is nothing to go out of the way for. Jerk chicken, not very hot or smoky, is dry; ditto rice and peas, though I do like the curried goat and a side of spinach and plaintains. The menu has all the other Caribbean standards, from conch fritters to coconut shrimp, esceveitched fish, and festival, plus Jamaican beverages like sorrel, ginger, and fresh limeade. As a bonus, there's house-made rum-raisin and Grape Nut ice cream. —Kate Schmidt

Ja's Jerk Chicken
2806 W. Lake | 773-533-5375

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO

When CHIC grad Johnetta "Ja-Ja" Martin-Smith set out to open a jerk joint, she found a sweet spot right under the Green Line stop at California, where she's been running it with the help of her sister Tonya. Adherents of texturally "hard" jerk chicken will immediately notice a difference in Martin-Smith's. It's less dry, more stewy, and little less smoky than some of my favorites, but that's a deliberate stylistic choice. She starts the rubbed chicken in the aquarium smoker over lump charcoal, then finishes it in the oven to avoid drying it out—not necessarily inferior, just different. Her jerk sauce is thin, heavily vinegared, and dominated by allspice, but has a respectable burn as it seeps into the rice and beans on the bottom. We also ordered oxtails and a bony but tender curried goat, which won the day. The sisters are putting out up to 19 sides daily—stewed cabbage with carrots was terrific, and greens, cooked with smoked turkey rather than pork, were pretty salty but nicely textured, with a lot of life left in them. Their mother is on dessert duty, and her soft, gooey peach cobbler, with plenty of caramelized brown sugar, is exactly the sort of thing that reduces me to a helpless drooling infant. —Mike Sula

Kingston Grill
1164 Dodge, Evanston | 845-570-4811

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY

The juicy jerk chicken here comes in a sandwich, as wings, in a salad, or as an entree in a quarter-, half-, or whole-bird portion. Kingston Grill (formerly Jazmyn's Chicken) also serves other traditional dishes like slow-cooked oxtail, curried chicken, curried goat, panfried kingfish, and browned cow's feet in tomato sauce.Entrees come with either white rice or rice and peas, but you can also opt for sides like fried plantains, veggie patties, and cabbage slaw. Alcohol prohibited. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Life Line Tropical Island Cuisine & Juice
7247 N. Damen | 773-262-4818

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

A far-north-side outpost of a far-south-side restaurant and catering company, Life Line has been doing a brisk business, and it's easy to see why. This is some damn good jerk, and portions are such that you'll be feasting on leftovers for at least a couple days. Curried goat was flavorful if characteristically bony, but even better were the sides, especially the distinctive callaloo and tender steamed cabbage. The small, colorful storefront has been tricked out with a thatched juice bar, high tables, and booths, and while I could do without the blaring music videos, service is friendly. Alcohol prohibited. —Kate Schmidt

Roots Caribbean Cuisine
1343 W. Morse | 773-262-9588

$ CARIBBEAN, JAMAICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | BYO

My Quiet Place, the previous occupant of this storefront space near the Morse el stop, was indeed that—almost always bereft of business. I hope this small, family-run Jamaican and Belizean restaurant makes a more successful go of it. The ambitious paper menu lists more than 45 items, but in reality your choices are limited to the six or soentrees posted on the board, plus baked goods and sodas. It's decidedly home-style cooking. Panades, deep-fried masa crescents stuffed with fish and served with a pungent cabbage relish, were oily, the fish less than fresh tasting, and gelatinous cow's foot isn't something I'm prepared to repeat. But I liked the smoky jerk chicken, rice and beans, and cabbage quite a bit, and curried goat was tasty and tender. Be warned: kingfish takes 45 minutes to prepare, and Roots is currently cash only. —Kate Schmidt

Tickie's Belizean Cuisine
7605 N. Paulina | 773-973-3919

$ CARIBBEAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Cheery turquoise tables and walls brighten this tiny place by the Howard el station, and the menu melds Caribbean and Latin flavors. Offerings include dukunuisas, tamales made with fresh corn instead of corn flour, stuffed with meat or chicken, and steamed in foil; panades, tiny fish-filled crescent-shaped pastries accompanied by a spicy habanero sauce and shredded cabbage; and soups full of ingredients like cow's feet or conch. Stewed chicken, curry chicken, beef, and oxtail are the main entrees here, along with several whole deep-fried fish served with tomatoes and onions. Desserts—hot cross buns and lemon pie among them—are all homemade. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Tropic Island Jerk Chicken Restaurant
419 E. 79th | 773-978-5375

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | TAKEOUT ONLY

Hacked to order, Tropic Island's yard birds are generously steeped in the manifold spices that typify the island style, their flesh moist and soft, tinged with the rosy blush of a good smoke. They're served on rice and peas, with sidekicks of plantains and mushy cabbage; these bland starches act as a kind of protective barrier against the tiny tubs of dark, nuclear sauce you might apply to the bird if you've something to prove. The standard repertoire of homey and often bony Jamaican eats are in effect: oxtails, brown stew chicken, yard salad, beef patties, and callaloo. But the pinnacle of long-cooked fatty comfort is the goat, which requires a small amount of dental work to appreciate. —Mike Sula

Tropical Time Jerk Chicken
1117 S. First, Maywood | 708-338-2003

$ JAMAICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

The rich, stewy Caribbean dishes like curry goat or beefy, oily, fall-off-the bone oxtails at this jerk joint just up the road from the Fourth District Cook County Courthouse would make a cheerful lunch break from the grim human drama on display there. Genial owner Drew cooks over charcoal in an aquarium-style pit, which gives his jerk chicken a spicy smoke. His jerked catfish escabeche has an even busier flavor when it's dressed with the vinegary sauce and amped with onions, carrots, and cooked-down Scotch bonnets. Drew's jerk sauce isn't incendiary, more vinegar than chile, and makes a nice dressing for blander sides like fried plantains, rice and beans, or soft sauteed cabbage. The remains are moppable with Caribbean American Bakery's sweet, dense hard-dough bread. —Mike Sula

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