5 Best Caribbean Spots in the Bay AreaBy Virginia Miller
May 28, 2014
Cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple sorrel juice. Multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers. These are the hallmarks of true Caribbean cuisine. Too bad they're both so hard to come by in the Bay Area. The best of our restaurants in this niche have been dominant in the East Bay: places like Suya African-Caribbean Grill or home-cooked gem Penny’s Caribbean Cafe, which closed when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago. But there are a few top go-tos we still seek out, from San Francisco to Menlo Park. Some of them lean traditional. Some are a fusion of various island cuisines with American flavors. All five of these spots are worth seeking out for their sorrel and all manner of Caribbean treats.
1. Back A Yard, Menlo Park and San Jose
The Gist: With a squeaky front porch door and a perpetual line out the door, closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals’ favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term “back a yard” refers to the way things are done “back home” in the Caribbean, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.
Eat & Drink: Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, down Jamaican grapefruit soda, Ting, which cools off the tender curry goat special the kitchen cranks out a few times a week. All of the generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad and coconut-laced rice ‘n beans. Here you can find authentic honey-sweet festivals, basically what would happen if a doughnut met cornbread. Jerk chicken shines as it should, though jerk tofu likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones with silky texture. On Fridays, go with the escoveitch special, a grilled whole fish of the day, head and eyeballs intact. It's true Caribbean comfort food.
Insider Tip: On Saturdays only, come for the best local version of Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee. Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and partnered with subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit that's a bit like lychee.
Price Range: Generous platters top out at $14.50
Jamaican platters with Ting soda at Back A Yard (Photo: Virginia Miller)
2. Miss Ollie's, Oakland
The Gist: Chef Sarah Kirnon draws crowds to sparse-yet-warm Miss Ollie’s in what has become a key foodie destination in Old Oakland, Swan’s Market. Barbados-born Kirnon serves food influenced from her home island and beyond, packing communal wooden tables in a spacious, spare dining room.
Eat & Drink: Named after, and in tribute to, Kirnon’s grandmother, Miss Ollie's serves daily changing dishes that range from curry goat to Kirnon's popular fried chicken. It's grandma’s recipe. Miss Ollie’s sorrel is a superior rendition, refreshing with any dish, like juicy sugarcane-grilled jerk hen.
Insider Tip: Daily specials include fresh loaves of Jamaican hard dough bread or chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk with Creole doughnuts.
Price Range: $2-17.50
3. Kingston 11, Oakland
The Gist: From Caribbean pop-up to permanent restaurant, Nigel Jones and Adrian Henderson's Kingston 11 is a special Caribbean restaurant that gathers locals around platters of jerk chicken imbued with a nice, long burn from Scotch bonnet peppers.
Eat & Drink: Down a proper (i.e. so much ginger it's spicy) house ginger beer with saltfish fritters or a hearty oxtail stew.
Insider Tip: Two beloved Caribbean drinks get boozed up on their thoughtful, rum-heavy cocktail menu. Aforementioned sorrel juice is partnered with sparkling prosecco and bitters in a Kingston Sunset, while Ting soda meets local St. George's Botanivore Gin in Oaktown Ting.
Price Range: $6-17
4. Primo Patio, San Francisco
The Gist: The food is not exactly authentic nor is it particularly noteworthy but it's Primo Patio's hidden back patio, festive vibe and proximity to the ballpark that continue to make it an insider's go-to for over a decade.
Eat & Drink: Here, it's best to stick with the more traditional Jamaican dishes vs., let's say, "Caribbean quesadillas." The signature, tender jerk chicken comes on a platter with black beans, cumin rice and changing vegetables.
Insider Tip: Instead of going for overpriced ballpark food or hitting the many burger and pub type joints near the park, do something different pre or post game by lingering in Primo's back patio with house sangria or a bottle of Red Stripe beer.
Price Range: $3-13.25
Platters of food at Sweet Fingers (Photo Source: Virginia Miller)
5. Sweet Fingers, San Leandro
The Gist: Just south of Oakland in the town of San Leandro, dive-y Sweet Fingers serves hefty platters of Jamaican food. Chef Clive is a friendly, engaging guy with a history in NY and the West Coast and a passion for cooking his native country’s foods. Jamaican flags, bright reds, yellows and greens and plenty of Bob Marley imagery and music, make the otherwise dingy place feel festive.
Eat & Drink: Saltfish and ackee is an occasional special. Their festivals, aka Jamaican cornbread fritters, are addictive just as they are at Back A Yard (above). Curry goat is fatty and messy but rich with flavor. Spanish Town Scotch bonnet shrimp delivers a real heat kick from the peppers, cooled by coconut milk-drenched veggies and a glass of house sorrel juice or an intense house ginger beer.
Insider Tip: Live reggae, hip hop and R&B as well as poetry and open mic nights, ensure Sweet Fingers remains a neighborhood gathering place.
Price Range: $3-19