Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine, South Side Jamaica

Campbell's Caribbean Cuisine

When I first moved to Chicago, I was missing Jamaican food. I was accustomed to the countless Jamaican restaurants, cafes, and walk-ups in Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Carnasie, and Prospect Park neighbourhoods. My sister took me to a restaurant on the South Side named Maxine’s and oh was I in heaven. Well, Maxine’s has since moved to a location on Chicago’s West Side and Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine has taken up residence in its place at 1225 E. 87th Street.

Beef Pattie

Beef Pattie

Fast forward to the near present. My sister and I were hanging out and after I had spent so much time wondering if Campbell’s was worth a trip, my sister grabbed her purse and keys and directed me to the car. Off we went. And on arrival, we noticed that the interior of the restaurant had changed. There was no spectacular decor about the place. The lounge look and feel was gone. But the smell of the food screamed, “Sit down and get ready for what’s going to happen.”

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

We had a real go of the menu and still decided not to order a ridiculous amount of food because we wanted to see if Campbell’s made the cut worthy enough for return visits. While catching up on happenings since we had last been together, we indulged beef patties and imbibed some ginger beer. The patties hit the spot, for true. And there is no such thing as a bad ginger beer, same being true here.

Brown Stew Chicken

Brown Stew Chicken

We ordered two traditional dishes. One was jerk chicken that was rather reminiscent of jerk chicken you get from the jerk mall in Port Antonio. The chicken fell off the bone with little effort, which was all the indication we needed to know that it was tender and moist. The same was the case with the brown stew chicken that hinted to me to get ingredients so I can make some in my slow cooker. Along with the chicken, we had rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. Believe me when I say that a recalcitrant child who hates vegetables will love the cabbage here. And if you have the rice and beans and plantains served with it, the kid won’t miss meat.

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

After well over an hour of indulgence, my sister started telling me about some areas on the South Side that I had never gone to when I was living in South Shore and in Hyde Park. She took me to Brown Sugar Bakery at 328 E. 75th Street in a neighbourhood called Greater Grand Crossing. Everyone boasts about baking the best cakes and cupcakes ever. Brown Sugar Bakery has every right to boast the loudest. I had a caramel cupcake with caramel frosting clearly made homemade from brown sugar, butter, and milk. And to all bakeries still into red velvet cakes and cupcakes, just STOP NOW. The cake was not baked using cake mix, the same being true for the caramel cupcake. But it was the flavour and the texture that smacked of an original recipe being used to bake the red velvet cupcake. I have no problem going to the South Side for this kind of goodness. Brown Sugar Bakery has a regular customer and my sister has an appreciative little brother.

Brown Sugar Bakery

Red Velvet Cupcake, Caramel Cupcake

Because Chicago’s South Side does not have a large multicultural presence reflective of countries abroad, I had not captured many restaurants outside of Hyde Park for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There seems to be a number of Jamaican restaurants and a few other Caribbean restaurants scattered throughout the South Side. I think that this summer will mean me having a chance to try out several other various restaurants in the South Side vicinity. Maxine’s may have gone away and Campbell’s has moved in. And Brown Sugar Bakery may be the undoing of my flat tummy. Then again, all things in moderation. I’ll go every other week instead, not every week.

Campbell's Caribbean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Going South, Cafe Trinidad

Cafe  Trinidad

With the constant drop in temperatures and snow piling up outside, I have been good about not rattling off the statement, “I will be glad when summer arrives.” Honestly, summer in Chicago on Lake Michigan is like having a gigantic magnifying glass over the city and all pedestrians are like ants. The temperatures go from one extreme to the next. And people in Chicago are resilient. Unless there is a certain threat of bad weather shutting the city down, life goes on. Well, let’s be real. When was the last time your appetite said, “I think I shall wait until you finish your brooding about cold temperatures and not having anything to eat”? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my appetite has a life of its own and I obey when it starts whining.

Homemade Ginger Beer

Homemade Ginger Beer

To force myself into a mindset of being in a place where there is warmth, I was on the hunt for some Caribbean food. Much to my surprise, I found a Trini restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After moving from the South Side to flee painful memories, I had not made trips back except for church — and I drive like a bat out of hell to get back to the North Side immediately afterwards — and to Hyde Park. But I gave Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood some precedence. So, I grabbed my camera for some action journaling and still shots, and it was off to the subway to connect to an “L” so that I could continue south of 35th Street.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

With an interior that looks much like a lot of catfish shacks and chicken shanties on the South Side and West Side, you get that look at Cafe Trinidad. There are a few tables and for those who are big on decor, the bright colours adds warmth during days like what we were having — with 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulating outside. What Cafe Trinidad has in spades is GOOD FOOD. I ordered a plate of curry chicken, rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. The chicken was not only spicy but it was also flavourful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Yes, you heard me correctly. At some Caribbean restaurants that I have not bothered to put on Chicago Alphabet Soup, the plantains were fried to a horrible crisp or boiled to a questionable texture. The plantains I had at Cafe Trinidad were sweet without sweetener enhancers and just right. And to top it all off, I had some homemade ginger beer. The last time I had homemade ginger beer that was worth writing home about was when I had gone to a Ghanaian restaurant in Washington, DC.

Although you can have a seat at Cafe Trinidad, there is no server to come to your table and take your order and run it to the kitchen. You review the menu at the table or at the till where you place your order. Being able to see the kitchen was a plus for me because I knew there was some serious authenticity to the food. Certainly when my food came to the table with some kick to it, I knew that there was someone from Trinidad in the kitchen working magic. Having only tried the curry chicken dish, I noted that there are wraps and other dishes on the menu. I guess I will have to brave the snow a few more times so that I can indulge some more Trini delights. Seriously, my stomach is already telling me to set aside some dates in the upcoming months. There is some roti on the menu that needs to know that I appreciate it.

Cafe Trinidad on Urbanspoon

Original Tropic Island, the Jamaican Way

Original Tropic Island

Original Tropic Island

Orange Lemonade

Orange Lemondade

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.

Jerk Chicken, Cabbage, Plantains, Rice and Peas

Jerk Chicken, Cabbage, Plantains, Rice and Peas

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.

Pink Lemonade Ting

Pink Lemonade Ting

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.

Jerk Catfish, Plantains, Yams, Rice and Beans

Jerk Catfish, Plantains, Yams, Rice and Beans

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.

Armenian, Siunik and Oberweis — Oh, Be Wise

Note: Suinik Armenian Grill has moved to 1707 Chestnut Avenue in Glenview, Illinois.

Last year there were some weekends that had such great weather that I took advantage of riding my bicycle through several neighbourhoods without succumbing to dehydration. The fun thing with the bike rides was going down side streets and happening upon various little hidden coves of cafés and boutiques. When driving and when riding public transit, you see everything from the main road. Hidden gems down residential streets and around corners never pass the eyes such that you register their presence. I missed those discoveries. And earlier this year, I found Skokie, Illinois, to have several points of interest that no one brings to life in discussion. One spot that jumped out at me when I had gone to Skokie for Afghani and then again for Jamaican food was a certain Armenian grill.

Siunik

Siunik Armenian Grill has a bit of that Chipotle “thing” going. But the authenticity in the flavouring of the food will soon make you forget that Chipotle exists. At 4639 Oakton Street in Skokie, Siunik Armenian Grill serves up some “real” Armenian tastes. All the other Armenians who continuously poured in will co-sign on that observation. I had a chicken kebab plate. The spiced chicken looked as though it could have been dry but when you bit down into each piece and it exploded with juice, I gave up on judging books by their covers. And the couscous with mushrooms puts the generic couscous that Middle Eastern fast food eateries serve to shame. There must be a marinade to the mushrooms because it was not merely a case of biting into something with texture. It was all about sinking teeth into a recipe that had been prepared to tradition. The two pedestrian items that I had were cabbage salad and bread. The cabbage salad reminded me of slaw without the mayonnaise – and I was happy all the same without it. But then there was the hummus. Again, this was not a menu item that was simply added to the bill of fare because everyone is serving hummus. Even after having skimmed the paprika and cilantro off the top with a scoop of the bread, there was so much bloom in the recipe that I ordered some to go.

Armenian Chicken Plate

Armenian Chicken Plate

When I was all done, I headed North into Skokie in search of some ice cream. In the Chicago metropolitan area, ice cream parlours are generally taken over by teenagers and tweens who giggle and embed the word “like” between every other word they use in sentences. And that’s before, during, and after ordering their ice cream. Yet I still burn for some creamy treats on occasion and I endure the torture of giggling, indecisiveness, and excessive use of “like.” What should be nearby but an Oberweis creamery at 4811 Dempster Street. It had to have been divine because the ice cream parlour was absent of the giggle-like nightmare. I ordered a fudge sundae with cookies and cream and espresso cappuccino for my two scoops. I was so very, very, incredibly, magnificently, stupendously happy. I guess it goes without saying that I was also bordering on food comatose.

Double Scoop Sundae

Double Scoop Sundae

Much like sections of Chicago proper, immediate neighbouring suburbs also have a few locations that go unnoticed. It takes a casual drive or a long stroll through some areas to find these areas where tradition meets culinary delights. It very well could be that tourism is not the target import and so there is no advertisement to draw larger crowds to these gems. However, you do find those representative of the ethnicities present and that is always an indication that the restaurants reflect the “old country” proper. I have passed by several locations that flashed by my peripheral and have considered returning for longer gazes to see what would tempt the palate. Had I not done just that this past weekend, I never would have had some of the most delicious Armenian.

Siunik Armenian Grill on Urbanspoon Siunik Armenian Grill on Foodio54

Sunset in Negril, I’m in Chicago

De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine

When I turned 40, some friends had taken me to an Afghani restaurant for my birthday dinner. I had been to the Afghani restaurant — Kabul House — for the very first blog post to Chicago Alphabet Soup and I was a few notches past anxious for returning. The food was something delicious and with it having been the first time ever indulging any Afghani cuisine, it was tastefully exotic. Having the dinner celebration at the restaurant and loving the dining experience as much as I did the first visit, I had made plans to return for a few future excursions. Much to my disappointment, the restaurant had closed its doors. While Chicago and the neighbouring suburbs may have Afghani communities, there were no other dining establishments to showcase their food talents. Recently I discovered that the restaurant had a new location in the small downtown section of Skokie, Illinois. And just a block away was another gem that I never would have thought would dot the landscape of Skokie — De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine at 4901 Oakton Street. Skokie is not known for having a Caribbean community, so I was fascinated to find something reflective of my culture.

Jamaican Beef Pattie

Jamaican Beef Pattie

The inside of De-Jred is spacious, with plenty of tables and booths. Upon entering, find a seat and prepare yourself for some authentic food from the island of Jamaica. I arrived just as the doors had opened, so I had my pick of seats. Knowing that I was going to capture impressions of what I was going to eat, I sat near the window for natural light to my photographs. The server approached with menu, a hearty welcome, and I had a few minutes to see what was on the bill of fare. It took very little time, as I saw something I was accustomed to eating as a kid. After placing my order and briefly talking with the owner/manager/cook about Jamaica, Toronto, and where there is a concentration of other Jamaicans in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, it was time to feed the monster.

Kola Champagne

Kola Champagne

Rice and Peas

Rice and Peas

One should never go to a Jamaican restaurant and leave without ordering a beef pattie. Actually, it is mandatory that you order a beef pattie unless you are a vegetarian. Talk about true Jamaican representation. I have had Jamaican beef patties at countless Jamaican restaurants and walk-up counters, most of which had a hint of beef filling and a lot of air between the crusts. At De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine, the patties are stuffed with beef filling and spicy the way I like them. They were so much like what I remember from Jamaica proper and the cast of Jamaican restaurants in Toronto to the point that I ordered some for take-away.

Callaloo

Callaloo

Being that I was in the mood for something reminiscent of my younger days, I had saltfish and ackee. Although you can eat it at any time of the day, it was a breakfast staple that made pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, and that other Stepford fare distasteful. There were even a few bones in the saltfish. With the saltfish and ackee, there were plantains and some steamed cabbage with carrots. I was a rather happy man after the first scoop of everything. And when I got a scoop of the rice and peas, I had mentally gone to Sheffield, Jamaica, and was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table handling business and washing it all down with some june plum juice. Well, I didn’t have any june plum juice. I had Kola Champagne instead, and that still was a big hit. Also, with the saltfish and ackee dish I had callaloo. In American-speak, think greens. Accented with stewed tomatoes and seasoned just right, I made them vanish, the food magician that I am. What would have really shot me to the moon would have been if I had some fried bammy with the meal. I would have stepped outside, counted from ten to one, and skyrocketed straight out into space.

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Had I not been in a reflective mood about my fortieth birthday, I never would have searched to see if Kabul House had a resurgence. It was fortunate that I was thinking of the Afghani restaurant because having discovered its new location, I also found out that there was a Jamaican restaurant within walking distance of it. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine may be one of those spots that you pass without noticing it. But if you are in the area and your nose detects the smell of something from that beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, open the doors to some of the best Jamaican food in the Chicago area. Be prepared for a dish or two of all the good things.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine on Urbanspoon