A wealth of tasty foods can be found at the city’s Caribbean-style restaurants
Like every other city in the United States, the Hispanic population in Syracuse is growing. Latest Census data puts the number of those identifying themselves as Latino at nearly 8,600 or 7 percent of the population from such countries as Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Seven local restaurants prepare Caribbean food. Diva’s Caribbean Restaurant is a small, Jamaican takeout spot at 1627 E. Fayette St. Caribbean King, wedged in a small strip mall on East Seneca Turnpike, offers takeout as well as seating for about 20. Las Delicias was originally situated on South Geddes Street, but 13 years ago moved to 550 Westcott St., close to Syracuse University, which helps attract students looking for a tasty and cheap meal. The longest-standing Jamaican restaurant is the Jerk Hut, which opened 14 years ago at 440 South Ave.
The area bordering South Geddes Street has long been a thriving community for Puerto Ricans, and a host of eateries hoping to feed them has regularly opened and closed. Three remain today. Don Juan Café Restaurant is celebrating 13 years at its Grand Avenue location, and a smaller satellite called Jandy’s is on South Geddes Street; it’s hard to find because there isn’t even a sign outside. The newest entry, opened in April, is La Lechonera at 719 S. Geddes St.—the same location where Las Delicias first set up shop almost 20 years ago.
But what exactly is Caribbean cuisine? It’s an amalgam of the cooking of Arawak, Taino and Carib Indians who cultivated sweet potatoes, corn and cassava, then seasoned foods with chilies and annatto seed. Puerto Ricans still use annatto seeds in asopao, a gumbo-like soup made with rice and a choice of chicken, pork or beans. Scotch bonnet chilies are Puerto Ricans’ favorite pepper and, as in all other Caribbean nations, rice and beans are staples.
The Spanish conquistadors brought European spices and olive oil to Caribbean shores.
African slaves who worked in the sugar fields brought pigeon peas, okra and yams. While their owners feasted on the finest meats and fish, they were left with discards, such as innards (tripe) and bones. Tripe and oxtails were turned into savory stews, entailing hours of cooking down the tough meats into toothsome dishes.
Leftovers of fish and pork rinds were salted to preserve them. Root vegetables and, of course, rice supplemented their food supply. Hot sauces and condiments created culinary interest to otherwise boring ingredients, among them curry, which came from India. Because of the very warm climate, exotic fruits like guava, passion fruit or mangos grow in abundance.
Stews, baked dishes, rotisserie and barbecue are mainstays of Caribbean kitchens.
The name barbecue comes from grilled meat smoked in a shallow pit called barabica, a word which translates as “sacred fire pit.”
Goat meat dishes are very popular in Jamaica, even though goats aren’t native to the island. They were brought there by the Spanish and were incorporated into Jamaican culture. Goat, like lamb, is flavorful, but the meat is much leaner and has a low fat content. A favorite dish, served especially at Jamaican weddings, is goat curry.
While each island has its own array of food specialties, plantains seem to be the common denominator of ingredients. The plantain is a green cousin to the banana, but unlike its yellow relative, it cannot be eaten raw. It is cooked when still green, producing a starchy pulp akin to potatoes. Left to ripen, a plantain sweetens and tastes similar to its yellow relative.
Plantains are flattened and fried into tostones, the favorite side dish in the Dominican Republic. Tostones are a little like potato chips, usually accompanied by a peppy, garlic-infused dipping sauce. Monfongo are cooked green plantains mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil, pork crackling or other ingredients particular to the cook, and fried or boiled accompanied by pork, beef, chicken or seafood. Fufu, made from various starchy vegetables like yucca or cassava, is prepared like monfongo.
Ackee is a fruit related to lychee, and is the national fruit of Jamaica. Parts of the fruit are poisonous but Jamaicans are adept in picking out the edible parts. Ackee and saltfish (salted, dried cod) is the national dish of Jamaica, and is commonly served as a breakfast dish.
If you’re hungry, head out to these Syracuse eateries to help you in your quest for authentic Caribbean food.
Advertising itself as “The Best in Caribbean Style Cuisine,” Las Delicias is the largest of all the Caribbean restaurants noted, seating 30, as compared with other venues, which may only have one or two tables. Las Delicias also has the most varied menu. Owners Francisco Rodriguez, who hails from the Dominican Republic, and his wife, Jeanette Moralez, originally from Puerto Rico, have together amassed a vast array of dishes, mostly culled from their respective native countries.
Plantain-based items are in abundance.
Alcapurrias are ground and fried green plantains stuffed with ground beef. Boiled plantains, or cassava yucca, are appetizers. Gringos lured here by their Hispanic friends and not ready to partake of the bounty of the Caribbean can still order french fries and chili.
Patties, little meat or vegetable pies, are all-time favorites, and make a satisfying snack for $1.50 each. Mexicans dub them “empanadas,” and they’re crescent-shaped instead of round. In fact, Rodriguez announced, more than 7,000 patties were sold at this year’s Taste of Syracuse.
In the sandwich category, as a nod to Cuba, the Cubano packs in Swiss cheese, roast pork, ham, pickle and garlic between two slices of bread. Steak or grilled chicken sandwiches are also available, Dagwood style.
Chicken, turned around Las Delicias’ kitchen rotisseries, is a top seller. The birds are basted with a blend of spices that make them flavorful and a much more tangy bite than the American variety. Order a whole, half or quarter. In the fish category, red boneless snapper comes fried and topped with a choice of peppy sauces. Stewed codfish or bacallao guisado is another choice. Shrimp in garlic sauce, in vegetable sauce or breaded is also listed along with octopus and conch salad. Pork comes up roasted, fried or in chops. Eating light? Order a garden salad, or one with avocado, codfish, conch or octopus.
Listed as “souppy rice” on the menu, asopao starts with rice then blends it with chicken seafood or vegetables with Las Delicias’ special house-blended seasonings. Alternately, soups or “sopas” combine chicken, shrimp, seafood, beef or beef tripe with noodles, potatoes and other vegetables.
Rice takes on a star spot in arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), or mixed with shrimp or calamari (squid). Other choices include arroz congriz (dirty rice, Caribbean-style), veg-etable rice or arroz blanco (just rice).
Vegetarians have long discovered Las Delicias as a place where they may feast on innovatively prepared dishes. Vegetarian platters draw from other listings on the menu along with cassava, guava or red or black beans, in Spanish, “vavichelas o frijoles rojas o negros.” Rodriguez is happy to fashion other vegetarian dishes by request.
Monfongo—cooked green plantains, mangu or yucca, available fried or boiled—comes in eight varieties. Monfongo is the national dish of Puerto Rico and natives pair the plantain mixture with shrimp, chicken, steak, beef strips, chicken tenders or boneless red snapper. All monfongos are served with salad and a house-made gravy.
An entire page of the Las Delicias menu is devoted to beverages. Tropical fruits are used in shakes and smoothies, plus natural juices. Caribbean Spanish coffee, Caribbean coffee or Café Negro, hot chocolate and tea are hot beverage choices. International beers cover almost 19 varieties of beers, plus 10 domestic ones. Caribbeans are not big wine drinkers, but 10 selections are available.
There is a steady flow of customers at any time of the day, for those picking up takeout orders or dining in the 31-seat, one-room café. Rodriguez, mindful of limited budgets, has not raised his prices for years. Word has also gotten around to other schools like Cornell and Colgate, which often hire Las Delicias for catering. Delivery, covering a 15-block radius, including South Campus, is available with a minimum of $8.50 plus $1 charge.
Las Delicias is open Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a. m. to 10 p.m. Call 422-0208, fax orders to 422-0209, or visit www.campusfood. com.
Three Caribbean restaurants are within walking distance from one another. Don Juan Café Restaurant, 102 Grand Ave., is the oldest and it contains a separate sit-down area along with the takeout counter. Dishes are similar to those found on the Las Delicias menu although hog mows or cuajito is new here. Turnovers are the same as empanadas, and a Mexican taco is available for $2. Non- Caribbean sandwiches like ham, egg salad, tuna and even pastrami can be purchased if you like.
Mofongos and a choice of roast chicken, pork chop, fried pork, beef stew, pepper stew or chicken stew, are lunch offerings served with rice, beans and salad. All are in the affordable $6.50 range. Yucca and sweet plantains are here as well. One item that jumps out from the menu is hog mows and rice, actually the stomach of a pig. In the American South they’re called chitterlings or chittlins. Don Juan’s is open Mondays to Saturdays: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dial 472-1770 for details.
There is no sign outside of Jandy’s, 1017 S. Geddes St., save for a neon one advertising hot coffee, so you have to look for a small building that looks more like a small bodega. A bevy of Puerto Rican women labor in the tiny kitchen, so you know you’re getting the real article, rather than packaged stuff.
Jandy’s, the Don Juan spinoff shop, seems to be a favorite takeout for students from Del- aware School just across the street, although their parents also come in for a takeout meal. The menu is written on a chalkboard, and changes frequently. It’s open Mondays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 476- 2730.
La Lechonera, three blocks away on South Geddes, enjoys a brisk business, probably because this location has housed a number of other restaurants over the years. It labels itself as serving a broad array of Hispanic food, but judging from the chalkboard menu, it seems mostly to cater to the Puerto Rican community. An item that they promote for catered events is their pig roast, called lechon, a common Sunday ritual in Puerto Rico, as well as a feature in the many open-air restaurants on the island. It’s open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Phone 474-1440 for information.
The Jerk Hut, which opened in 1996, is the longest-standing Caribbean restaurant in Syracuse. The food is Jamaican through and through, with some Spanish-inspired dishes thrown in for good measure. If you haven’t been to this South Side joint, you still may have seen owner Irvin “Bongo” Hanslip plying his wares at places like Taste of Syracuse as well as at the New York State Fair.
This genial gent learned how to make jerk chicken from his mother when he was growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. But cooking as a profession wasn’t his first endeavor. After arriving in the United States in 1970 Hanslip eventually worked at Allied Chemical for 14 years, until it closed in 1986. Undaunted, he opened Island Furniture on South Salina Street, across from Dunk & Bright.
He got to know SU students who would come into the store looking for bargains to furnish their rooms. One thing led to another, and Hanslip began cooking for the SU Caribbean Student Association in the 1980s. The food was so good that the students encouraged him to open a restaurant.
At the Jerk Hut, Hanslip recreated familiar Jamaican dishes inexpensively. Another plus was the location of the Jerk Hut, just across the street from the Southwest Community Center, a gathering place for many Caribbeans.
Now 64, Hanslip, along with his wife, Jackie Gonzalez, welcomes a varied clientele to his small dining room, its walls peppered with an eclectic array of posters of celebrities plus some quirky memorabilia. Diners will have an easier time of finding a table now that an open deck (“We call it a veranda in Jamaica,” says Hanslip) is being constructed.
Takeout is always available for those who want to feast on Jerk Hut fare at home. Dinners or side orders include curry goat, oxtail and beans and brown stew chicken. Also on the menu are rice and peas, fried plantains, steamed cabbage and callalloo. Beef, chicken or vegetable patties are popular, and french fries add an American touch to your order. Beverages unfamiliar to the American palate include sea moss, sorrel, coconut water, ting and Jamaican soda, although regular soda, tea and coffee are also available.
The signature jerk ingredient is featured in the jerk fish dinner, a spicy dish, for $9.50. Ditto for jerk chicken. As an appetizer, five jerk chicken wings are $5, or try a jerk chicken or fish sandwich for $6. There is even a jerk chicken salad for $6.50. Extra jerk sauce is $2. A jerk or curry shrimp dinner is $13.95, but a side order of either one is $8.50. Dinners are served with steamed cabbage and carrots, fried plantains, rice and peas cooked in coconut oil, or white rice.
The uninitiated may want to know what goes into making jerk. It is a style of cooking native to Jamaica. A very hot spice mixture is traditionally applied to pork and chicken, but fish, shrimp, shellfish, goat, beef, sausage, and even tofu, may be rubbed with the seasonings. In the rub ingredients, two items are a must: allspice (called “pimento” in Jamaica} and Scotch bonnet peppers, which are among the hottest peppers in the pepper family. Other ingredients include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper.
The chosen meat or fish is infused with the spice rub which is then grilled over hardwood charcoal, combined with pimento wood, berries and allspice leaves in a steel drum “jerk pan,” all adding to jerk’s distinctive flavor. You are welcomed with a whiff of this pungent blend when entering the Jerk Hut, which is open Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 478-5303 for information.
The location of Diva’s Caribbean Restaurant, at the corner of Teall Avenue and East Fayette Street, makes it convenient to Erie Boulevard East, as well as SU, Le Moyne College and the hospitals. This little eatery attracts a mostly takeout clientele, although there is a pull-up bar with stools for those who want to dine on the premises.
Diva’s has a rather extensive menu for its size, including 17 dinner selections, which include curry dishes of goat, chicken or shrimp. Jerk chicken or pork is also available, as is tripe with beans, and oxtail. Made to order are callalloo and saltfish, ackee and saltfish, or cabbage and saltfish.
Sandwiches of jerk pork, jerk chicken, steak or haddock are made with cocoa bread, accompanied by potato salad or garden salad. Jamaicans like their snack foods, which come in the form of beef or chicken patties, fritters or dumplings. Bulla, a light cake made with cinnamon and brown sugar, finishes off a Jamaican meal. Fruitcake, or lemon cake, are also Diva desserts. Nine drinks, both sweet and savory, are also listed, as is cornmeal porridge.
Diva’s is open Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 7 p.m. Call 373-0293 for information.
Breakfasts are popular items at Caribbean King. While porridge is familiar, callalloo and saltfish, liver and banana, dumplings or yams are a little off the beaten path for Americans.
There are two lunch specials for $3.99:
One features chicken, rice or fried dumplings, vegetable and a can of soda, while the other offers one piece of fried fish, rice or fried dumpling, vegetable and soda. A third lunch special includes two pieces of fried chicken, three fried dumplings and soda for the bargain price of $2.99. Side orders list plantains, fritters, plus familiar rice and macaroni and cheese. Four soups include vegetable, chicken, red peas or, curiously, cow foot. Portions may be ordered small or large.
Patties are favorite snacks. Choose from beef, chicken or vegetables encased in cocoa bread. Ask about their roti, which must be ordered in advance. Six meals (dinners) are served with rice, rice and peas, fried plantains and vegetables banana, yams or dumplings. For dessert, choose from pineapple upside down cake, sweet potato pudding, grater cake rock grizzada or a spice bun. Wash everything down with a choice of carrot juice, sea moss, peanut punch, mauby drink, cucumber juice or sorrel drink.
Caribbean King offers catering as well as free delivery with a minimum order of $25 within a five-mile radius. Hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. Call 498-6891 or fax orders to 498-6892.