Bring island flavor to your living room
719 S. Plymouth Ave.
Remember vacations to places you couldn’t drive to? The dread of packing followed by the intimate pat-down courtesy of the TSA, a day of travel, and then, finally, your destination! I reminisce about setting foot onto white sand beaches or tearing into a warm pastry on a side street while lying to myself that no one can tell I am a tourist (the fanny pack is back in style!). There is, however, an important part of travel that I can do right here in Rochester—-—eat food from countries or cities that I wish I were in. Yes, many people travel to look at historical monuments and hike tall things. Me? I travel to eat the best food in each city.
Caribbean Heritage is one of the lesser known culinary gems here in Rochester, serving up Caribbean (and a little Southern) cuisine. That’s right—you can visit the Caribbean* right here in Rochester. Regardless of whether you want something spicy, hearty, light, or comforting, Caribbean Heritage has your craving covered with its menu.
Let’s start with jerk chicken. It is synonymous with Jamaican food for most, and a worthy ambassador for the cuisine. “Jerk” is a style of cooking wherein the meat is pierced to allow a spice rub to be more easily absorbed and then cooked slowly over a wood fire. The result is tender chicken that has notes of allspice, cinnamon, scotch bonnet peppers, brown sugar, garlic, and other aromatics married with a smoky flavor you can only get from cooking meat slowly over a wood fire. The jerk chicken at Caribbean Heritage has a pleasant and addictive kick.
If you are too [cue hilarious word play] chicken about the spice, try the brown stew chicken. The first step to making this dish is “browning” sugar—as in, caramelizing some sugar without burning it. That’s where the color and name of the dish originate. Then the sugar is stewed with thyme, scallions, garlic, onions, and chicken. Brown stew is a savory dish with a hint of sweetness and fork-tender chicken. Eating this over fluffy rice is comparable to sitting at home on a rainy day and watching Netflix until it asks you whether you are still around.
Oxtail is, yes, the tail of a cow. Here in the United States, we are very separated from the source of our meat. But a chicken is not just the package of boneless/skinless breast commonly found at supermarkets. A cow is not just the filet or ribeye one pays top dollar for at steakhouses. Most cultures use as many parts of an animal as possible, usually out of need.
There is no getting around the origin of many Jamaican dishes—they are born out of the heinous history of the Spanish enslaving the African and Arawak people. The Jamaican oxtail dish has its roots in the cooking techniques of enslaved Africans who were only given the “unappealing” parts of an animal. They then added many herbs and spices to the meat and cooked it for a long period of time to coax flavor out of what they were given. Since oxtail is a rich cut, this resulted in a nourishing and succulent stew that remains part of Jamaica’s culinary heritage.
If you were served Jamaican oxtail without being told what it was, you would describe it as one of the most flavorful beef stews you have had. Caribbean Heritage does a stellar job with its oxtail stew—the beef falls apart in a luscious and well-seasoned gravy. If you skip this dish merely because of your unfamiliarity with the cut of meat, you would be missing out in more ways than one.
Caribbean Heritage also has an abundance of seafood and vegan dishes on the menu. At first, this may seem unusual. However, considering that Jamaica is the birthplace of the Rastafari religion and that many Rastafarians tend to eat mostly vegan, it all makes (delicious) sense. The Heritage Tofu in curry sauce and the Veggie Delight (soy patties with vegetables cooked in a technique similar to the brown stew) are not the boiled-to-death-greens dishes many imagine when thinking of vegan food. Mouthwatering and just as satisfying as their meat equivalents, they are worth ordering.
Curried cod is one of my favorites here. The curry sauce is a wonderful balance of cumin, coriander, and turmeric that does not overwhelm the mild-tasting cod. There are also curried chicken and curried lentil, which I hope to try on my next visit.
Most of the side dishes are vegan. The rice and peas are so good that a friend who claimed in advance to hate the dish had seconds. It’s the perfect background to the flavorful stews. Jamaican dumplings are more akin to Southern dumplings than the Chinese variety, as there is no filling. At Caribbean Heritage, they are slightly sweet and fried to perfection. You could eat this like a donut (like I did) or rip it and dip it in the stews (… like I did). There’s also steamed cabbage, callaloo (stewed greens—the next superfood!), and plantains (perfectly ripe and sweet).
As for drinks, Caribbean Heritage has a full bar (during non–COVID-19 times). Try the Heritage Sorrel—a traditional nonalcoholic Jamaican beverage made of hibiscus. It is tangy and floral. If you get this to go, add some rum to make yourself a refreshing cocktail. The restaurant also features a tasty house-made lemonade that I might pair with vodka at home next time.
Don’t forget to save room for dessert—all are house-made. If you love rum, try the Jamaican rum cake. (No pulled punches with the rum content.) It is a lightly spiced cake soaked in rum. My personal favorite is the red velvet cake, fluffy and gently sweet. The frosting is tangy and light. It is worth feeling uncomfortably full for.
While we all try to stay home, wearing our sweatpants for a number of days that we don’t want to admit, let’s take the opportunity to vacation via local restaurants. A takeout order from Caribbean Heritage can be your first destination—no TSA screening required.
*BYO warm sand and blue sea
Naz Banu is a software engineer by day and a food appreciator by night (and day). She is often seen trying to convince people to try the spicy salsa for once. Follow her on Instagram at @tablefornaz.