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

Jerky Jerk, No Jerking Around

Gino at Jerky Jerk

With the temperatures in Chicago now feeling consistently tropical, I had started getting more into a Caribbean frame of mind. Recognizing that there are a few Caribbean restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area, most of them I have gone to already, I was on the hunt for a different spot. A great friend had mentioned Jerky Jerk in Chicago’s Rogers Park at 1217 W. Devon Avenue.

Beef Patty

Beef Patty

There are traditional dishes that I always get whenever I go to Jamaican restaurants. Beef patties are one of them. Unlike some beef patties that I’ve gotten at a few other Jamaican restaurants, the ones at Jerky Jerk were stuffed with meat. There were no air pockets in these, and with them being spicy, I ordered five more for take-away.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Bean, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Bean, Cabbage

I hadn’t had curry chicken in months and I had an appetite for some in a major way. Spicy and loaded with Caribbean taste, the plate of tender chicken with rice and peas and cabbage really made my day. And because I had been in the gym, I was not full even after the plate of curry chicken. So, I had some Mrs. Brown chicken stew with more rice and peas and more cabbage. I can’t say exactly what spices were in the recipe other than what seemed like a marriage of curry and jerk seasoning. What I can say is that I was more than happy to order more of the curry chicken and Mrs. Brown stew chicken for taking home with me.

Mrs. Brown Stew Chicken, Rice and Beans, Cabbage

Brown Stew Chicken, Rice and Beans, Cabbage

Jerky Jerk is more like a walk-up. There are only a few tables in the dining area and chances are there are several other Jamaicans in the dining room having a go of it in Patois. The atmosphere is very much like what you experience when you are in Jamaica. And the food is definitely prepared full of flavour the way it is on that wonderful Caribbean island. I think my paternal grandparents would have been pleased.

Jerky Jerk Caribbean Grille Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

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.

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