The West Indian American Day Carnival brings more than a million revelers to Crown Heights over Labor Day weekend, culminating in a parade on Labor Day. Brooklyn boasts a dense concentration of Caribbean culture year-round, especially in Crown Heights, but celebrants can also island-hop in Manhattan where boldly spiced jerk chicken, oxtail and goat curry await. Many restaurants focus on the flavors of Jamaica while others express influences from Trinidad, the Grenadines and Cuba. Read on for more info.
The Food Sermon
355 Rogers Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Design a feast through a build-your-own-bowl concept at the Food Sermon, a counter-service Caribbean restaurant in Crown Heights. Four bountiful protein offerings—jerk halal chicken (a must), tender braised oxtail, panko-crusted salmon and pan-seared tofu with vegetables—are matched with either white or brown rice, well-seasoned red beans or curry chickpeas and sauces of spicy tomato or silky coconut-ginger. Chef Rawlston Willliams is originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a Seventh-day Adventist, so the restaurant is closed from sundown Friday to Sunday afternoon.
Freda’s Caribbean & Soul Cuisine
933 Columbus Ave., Manhattan Valley, Manhattan
This relaxed, no frills restaurant is near the northern border of Central Park and features inexpensive, filling lunch deals until 4pm. The Caribbean-style slow-cooked brown stew chicken comes with rice and peas plus one side; by all means get the nutritious callaloo accented with okra, coconut and garlic. A fuller menu is also served at lunch and dinner, including jerk shrimp, curried goat and more vegetable choices than found at most other like-minded establishments.
788 Franklin Ave.
A wood-fired grill imparts smokiness to the marinated meats at Glady’s, a breezy indoor jerk shack near the Brooklyn Museum. Depending on how much heat you can tolerate, scotch-bonnet-pepper-spiked sauce should be cautiously applied to the jerk fried chicken sandwich (at lunch only) or the hunks of charred jerk pork. Have a cold Red Stripe at hand to cool the lip-tingling. The bar also offers a wide range of fine rums and a slushie machine churning out frozen tropical cocktails.
Miss Lily’s 7A Café & Rum Bar
109 Avenue A, East Village, Manhattan
The spirited Miss Lily’s in the East Village is packed during most opening hours, so it’s best to book a reservation even if you’re showing up early for brunch. That’s when you’ll find a fluffy callaloo and gruyère omelet with crisp potato wedges and a fried fish sandwich with scotch bonnet mayo and jerk-seasoned fries (also served at lunch). Anything fried, including cod fish fritters, is worth it as is roasted corn cobs rolled in jerk mayo and toasted coconut. The original Soho location (132 W. Houston St.) also has a reggae vibe and led to other branches in Negril, Jamaica, and Dubai, UAE.
671 Washington Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
The Islands has virtually no social media presence, so the fact that crowds are able to find the unassuming restaurant is a testament to how good the Jamaican food is. Goat curry and jerk leg of lamb have rich, complex seasoning; the meat easily shreds with a fork. The red snapper’s fresh-fried flavor is brightened with escovitch-style dressing (made with vinaigrette, pimento seeds, carrots, onions, peppers and thyme). For an appetizer, don’t miss the fish fritters (called stamp and go) fired up with chilies. Bargain tip: it’s BYOB.
70 W. 3rd St., Greenwich Village, Manhattan
This bi-level Caribbean supper club near Washington Square Park has a dark, plush upstairs and a casual den downstairs, both geared for celebratory gatherings. Share finger food like curry goat empanadas and the tostones topped with a mound of saltfish cooked in a creamy, mildly fruity ackee. Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Trinidadian flavors are represented on the menu (roti with curry shrimp, calabash stew with curried lentils) along with an array of tropical cocktails.
178 N. 8th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Pearl’s is a small, hip spot with colorful walls and vintage boomboxes from Fallon and John Seymour of nearby Sweet Chick. On nice nights head for the chill back patio where the tinkling of wind chimes mixes with a reggae soundtrack. The signature dish is bake and shark, a Trinidadian street food specialty. It consists of a puffy, golden bread pocket stuffed with fried shark (also called dogfish), tamarind, pickled slaw, mango chutney, garlic and shado beni, similar to cilantro. It’s brightly flavored, messy and amazing. There’s a full bar and a wide-ranging Caribbean menu that also includes good coconut curry shrimp and guava-glazed jerk ribs.
Solomon & Kuff Rum Hall
2331 Twelfth Ave., Harlem, Manhattan
Faux rum barrels line this cavernous, moody West Harlem restaurant and lounge. They may be for show, but the 100 or so international rums displayed behind the bar are the real deal. The West Indian food takes fusion detours, via the green chili aioli with thick yucca fries, crunchy fish cakes with ackee remoulade and the jerked Japanese eggplant with avocado and pumpkin seeds. It’s open Thursday to Sunday evenings and for brunch on weekends.
238 Flatbush Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn
The bronzed jerk chicken wings at Sugarcane are meaty and tinged with sweetness from passionfruit mojo cooled only by a dip in creamy mango sauce. It’s the ideal multi-napkin starter for a group to dig into before moving on to rum-braised oxtail, dense macaroni pie and plantain-crusted red snapper. The low-lit, modern restaurant is a lively spot for a night out with friends, especially if you can snag one of the curvy red booths in the back.
236 W. 52nd St., Midtown West, Manhattan
An elegant throwback to pre-revolutionary Havana, Victor’s was founded in 1963 by Victor del Corral, a Cuban émigré. The original location closed long ago, and this Theatre District haunt, run by his daughter and granddaughter, has endured since 1980. Amid potted palms, diners tuck into slowly braised and pulled skirt steak (ropa vieja), garlicky roast pig (lechón asado) and saffron-infused rice and chicken casserole (arroz con pollo). Drinks are strong and there’s frequently live music.