Fall in Chicago is a rather nice time. I would say magical, but that sounds like it would be coming from someone telling a fairy tale that ends in “and the weather in Chicago year round was more inviting than the weather in San Diego.” Granted the temperatures are indeed nice this time of year – as far as mildly chilly goes – and the sky holds the most beautiful patches of popcorn clouds you’ll see, you still want to get outside and go somewhere. For me, that may mean a drive along Lake Michigan, going up the North Shore or on the hunt for something to satisfy my growling belly. Yes, yes, yes, I know you’re saying, “But you always are on the make when it comes to food.” Correct, I won’t deny that.
I had climbed behind the wheel of my Volkswagen Jetta and was ready to go vroom down the avenues when my cellphone rang. It was my god sister calling to inquire as to what I was doing, or rather what was I contemplating eating. She knows me very well, evidently. I was waffling between going for Senegalese or Jamaican. There was an “aha” in her voice as she mentioned a certain Jamaican restaurant on the South Side. “Oh, no, not the South Side,” I said, as if I never lived on the South Side. But there was Jamaican food to be had. My snobbery had to be set aside.
At 553 E. 79th Street is Original Tropic Island Jamaican restaurant. Oh what a wonderful day. Nothing says you have been transported to the island like the smell of a grill burdened with meats basted with jerk spices. And in keeping with going to holes in the wall, there was nothing fancy about the inside. The area where you order your food looks like a makeshift carry-out store. The seating area looks like it was pieced together. But it was the food that reminded me of the outdoor jerk shacks in Sheffield, Saint Ann Parish, Port Antonio, and in “the bush.”
Jerk chicken. Jerk catfish. Rice and beans. Cabbage. Yams. Plantains. Coco bread. Callalou. Ting. JAMAICAN FOOD IS MY LOVER.
The food came in carry-out containers. No problem, as we carried it to the seating area, opened the Styrofoam holders and commenced to handling business family style. There was no, “Please don’t eat from my plate” sentiments. There was no keeping up appearances. There was no wasting time. After all, we were family and the food was getting gobbled regardless of where the forks went. Chic-chic? Are you kidding? This was a serious matter, not charm school.
The meat had a smoky flavour that definitely reminded me of the huge jerk mall in Port Antonio where you walk up, make your request, and the cooks work their magic on the grills. Exactly like the meats served up from the grills at the jerk mall, it is all tender, all succulent, completely juicy, bursting with bliss, pa-pow-pow, happiness, and wow. If you smoke and you’re trying to stop, don’t go to Original Tropic Island and have their jerk meats. You’ll never give up the demon nicotine. The plantains were plump and ripe, and they had been prepared such that there was no chewy texture. Because they were ripe, they were sweet naturally, no sugar added. Loved the yams and they were the perfect complement to the callalou. Collard greens what? Mustard greens what? Kale what? Spinach what? They put crushed red peppers in the callalou. Ma Williams does that, too. The cabbage reminded me of the cabbage that my paternal grandmother used to make with a huge pot of curried chicken, potatoes, and carrots. Talk about eating well. There were, of course, rice and beans that added a teeter to my god sister’s and my walk after we were done. WE WERE NOT DEFEATED. We were moving in slow motion, though.
Just before leaving, what was going to be a matter of paying the tab had turned into a long conversation among friends. A little bit of patois, a lot of laughter, reminiscing about the island – me having visited numerous times – the staff having lived there, it felt like I had gone to visit my paternal grandmother. I am the last person to argue about not feeling at home when I go to any establishment with that kind of atmosphere. In short, we didn’t go to the South Side, but rather we went home. And as we exited and everyone said, “We’ll see you soon, Brother, Sister,” yep, I will be going home in the near future, back to Original Tropic Island.