Get your fill of Island grub at the State Fair’s Pan-African Village
It often takes more than a few years for new food vendors to get established as State Fair favorites, those landmark stands that visitors head for as soon as they pass through the gates. Marking their 15th year, the exotic flavors of the Pan-African Village have made the grade with a lineup that tempts those walking through to enjoy dishes that come from the sultry shores of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, as well as tropical Africa and the heart of Dixie.
The major players under the festive tent have each benefited from having been spun off as satellite locations of popular Syracuse restaurants. Four major vendors were on site during the 2010 State Fair, covered by the village food awning and united by a brightly colored kente cloth spanning the entire length. They are joined this year by two new vendors sharing their colorful corner of the Fair with merchants hawking Afro-centric treasures, souvenirs, toys, crafts and clothing.
The anchor is the Jerk Hut, a holdover from the original Pan-African Village in 1997 and proud vendor of the Fair’s spiciest foods, jerk chicken and jerk fish. “The jerk is our No. 1 signature,” proclaimed proprietor Irving “Bongo” Hanslip, his warmth and energy adding as much flavor as the fiery scotch bonnet peppers that give his dishes their characteristic spark. “Now I’m expanding in the fish because, as we know, a lot of people don’t eat too much meat, more vegetarian. We have now a jerk vegetarian dish: your rice, some peas, your steamed cabbage, your fried plantain, now some jerk sauce over your rice. That is a special.”
In addition to his jerk-sauced entrees ($10 last year), Hanslip’s menu also includes such exotic items as oxtails ($12) and curried chicken ($9). Dinners are served with red beans, rice, cabbage and plantains. Bongo’s welcome is as warm as his cuisine, while his jovial accent competes with the African drum circle and the tinkling of wind chimes as the most familiar sounds in the village.
A few steps toward the stage, where musical and dance groups perform several times daily, stands the Jerk Hut’s neighbor, Las Delicias, popular for its empanadas, essentially a Caribbean turnover, filled with meat and/or vegetables.
Their small finger size appeals to customers who want something quick and tasty, almost a sample of the cuisine. “We sell a ton of empanadas,” owner Francisco Rodriguez raved. “We sell empanadas for a dollar. You got $5, you buy five empanadas, you’re done.”
A sack full of Latino pies is indeed one option, but you may want to leave room for Francisco’s other specialties. “People like our arroz con pollo, Spanish rice and chicken ($8 last year),” Rodriguez said. “We got stewed chicken ($8), we got oxtail. We also do a roast pork salad and fried pork chunks ($8), yellow rice with pigeon peas ($3) and sweet plantain ($3).”
Business has blossomed for Rodriguez, who, like most Fair vendors, cherishes his regular diners. “We got really, like steady customers,” he said. “But every year you see new faces, a lot more people coming, usually for empanadas. A lot of people from the restaurant come here.”
At the other end, down-home comfort food, Southern-style, dominates the menu at Gwen’s Grill, the Fair version of the South Salina Street restaurant run by Gwen Lawson. Hearty entrees include barbecued pork ribs, chicken and beef ($5 each last year) as well as fried chicken ($5) or fish ($4). Gwen’s may be the only spot on the fairgrounds where you can order a full catfish dinner ($7). The menu also includes such soulful sides as collard greens ($3), sweet yams ($3), cornbread ($2) and macaroni and cheese ($3).
Customers who aren’t settling for fried dough or ice cream for dessert will be happy to discover that Gwen’s has baked a touch of Mom’s favorites including sweet potato pie ($2), bean pie ($2) and a variety of cakes ($2).
Squeezed into the middle of the tent is Omanii’s Lemonade Heaven, a franchise of a South Avenue business that features not only the namesake beverage, claimed to be the State Fair’s best, but a variety of drinks and light fare, such as sandwiches, fries and sweet potato cakes.
year’s rookie vendors, one run by the Dunbar Center featuring Po Boys
and the Zimbabwe Restaurant, with meat stews, greens and black-eyed
peas, will seek their places among those now firmly established in their
corner of the Fair. The Pan-African Village and its eateries are a
mandatory destination for many perennial visitors who have gotten
familiar with them. “From the beginning, we started out from one tent
and expanded,” Hanslip boasts. “The village is growing. If you come in
the main gate you can see the difference in traffic.” Once there, you
can taste the difference, too.