A Caribbean Food Tour of Crown Heights

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Crown Heights might just be the fastest-gentrifying neighborhood in all five boroughs. With a new population—young, white, creative-class—comes new businesses and, especially, new restaurants. But the divide between Old Crown Heights and New Crown Heights is stark, which means everyone loses, food-wise.

As rents skyrocket, the neighborhood’s great established Jamaican, Trinidadian and Panamanian restaurants aren’t seeing much business from the newcomers. And those new residents are missing out on amazing food, opting for the expected Brooklyn eateries that are popping up to serve them locally.

Crown Heights has long been a mecca for West Indian food, a treasure trove of interrelated cuisines that combine South Asian spices with new-world ingredients in unexpected ways. At the unexceptional-looking takeout joints along Nostrand Avenue, the neighborhood’s largely unchanged commercial hub, you’ll find everything from long-stewed oxtail and goat to buttery fruit-studded pastries to some of the best vegan food anywhere. The spots highlighted here are a very small sampling meant to encourage the new residents of Crown Heights (and everyone, really!) to look outside Mayfield, Barboncino and Chavela’s for dinner. It’s one of the great casual-eating neighborhoods in the entire city, a trip to the islands without leaving home.

The Islands crown heights
The jerk chicken ($11 for a small) at the Islands is absurdly, outrageously good: fall-apart tender, quite fiery but perfectly balanced with a blend of sweet spices.

Speaking of which, The Islands is a great pick for the slow-cooked classics—dishes like jerk chicken, curry goat and stewed ox-tail, all served in gigantic portions, accompanied with cabbage, coconut rice and peas. The small size is enough for two people; I can’t even imagine what the large is. The jerk chicken ($11 for a small) is absurdly, outrageously good: fall-apart tender, quite fiery but perfectly balanced with a blend of sweet spices. If you can’t handle hot, try the oxtail ($13 for a small), which is moist and perfectly cooked in a rich, fatty sauce. In between is the curry goat ($12 for a small), with a little tang and a little heat. You can also snag any of several drinks; the dark-purple sorrel juice is good, though it’s so sweet and rich you might find it hard to drink an entire serving. (Experiments have indicated that this juice mixes very well with seltzer and your booze of your choice.) If they haven’t sold out, grab a mac and cheese ($5), which has a great crackly crust.

Trinidad crown heights
It’s not at all unusual to find chow mein and oxtail rotis at the same joint, and Trinidad Golden Place is a good example.

In the 19th century, after the British outlawed slavery but still needed cheap labor for plantations in Trinidad and Tobago, thousands of Chinese workers came to the islands to fill the void. They left behind a few cooking traditions and a mildly mutated version of American-style Chinese food, which, unexpectedly, ends up on the menus of many Trinidadian restaurants in Crown Heights. It’s not at all unusual to find chow mein and oxtail rotis at the same joint, and Trinidad Golden Place is a good example.

Mostly a bakery, Trinidad Golden Place almost always has a line out the door. The ordering system is designed to serve food as it comes out rather than in the order in which it was purchased. It can be a little confusing; expect to stand in line for 30 or 40 minutes. But it’s worth it.

Entrées from the Chinese section of the menu tend toward the greasy (one exception: the pepper shrimp, a dish that combines Chinese stir-fry with Trinidadian flavors like Scotch bonnet pepper, is excellent), and the rotis are not notably better than any of several other spots within a block. What does shine is the baked goods. While you’re waiting in line, if anything comes fresh out of the oven, order one of those. The currants roll ($1.25) is somewhere between a rugelach and a croissant, layers of flaky, buttery pastry, studded with juicy dried currants. It’s one of the best pastries I’ve had all year. The coconut drops (75 cents) are scone-like pastries baked with shredded coconut and raisins, harder and drier than the currants rolls but no less tasty. Or you could opt for the butter bread ($3 a loaf), which isn’t sweet but more like a fantastically rich and chewy (yet pale) brioche or challah, with butter replacing the fat from egg yolks. It makes a decadent French toast.

On the savory side, the doubles ($1.50) are excellent. This quintessential Trinidadian street food—comprised of two pieces of fried flatbread filled with curried chickpeas—is done well here, with the flatbread notably light and fluffy. (You can also buy the doubles skins separately.) The potato aloo pie ($2), a sort of riff on a samosa consisting of spiced potatoes inside a large fried piece of split bread, is similarly rib-sticking and tasty. Make sure to ask for tamarind and pepper sauce on everything.

Tropical_Baking crown heights
Both the location and the bulletproof glass may scare off the uninitiated at Tropical House Baking, but the patties are spectacular: the beef patty ($1.50) in particular is meaty and rich.

If the on-the-go snack of Trinidad is the doubles, in Jamaica it’s undoubtedly the patty. New Yorkers are typically pretty familiar with the pale yellow patty, usually frozen, that’s filled with a shiny, theoretically beefy sauce; they’re a standard in most slice joints. Pretty much any Caribbean restaurant in Crown Heights will serve you a better one than that; excellent ones are easy to find. The patties at Silver Krust (not to be confused with the more common Golden Krust) are better than most; the pastry is spicy, layered and flaky, and never soggy or bready. As for fillings, the classic beef and chicken are very good, but my favorite is the ackee ($2.25). Ackee is a fruit in the lychee family, but you’d be excused if on first bite you confused it with scrambled eggs. It’s pale and savory, not sweet at all, and Silver Krust serves it amply spiced in a neon-orange patty. (I’m probably not selling it well, but that just means more for me.) Also worth a try: Tropical House Baking, further out into Crown Heights. Both the location and the bulletproof glass may scare off the uninitiated, but the patties are spectacular: the beef patty ($1.50) in particular is meaty and rich, not using a paste like most others. Opt for coco bread (a doughy roll made with coconut milk, traditionally served alongside patties) for the full experience.

Kelso is one of the last remaining Panamanian restaurants in Crown Heights.

Crown Heights has a diminishing but still present Panamanian population, as evidenced by the Panamanian Day Parade held each fall. Kelso is one of the last remaining Panamanian restaurants, but it’s worth trying; service is exceedingly welcoming and the space is pleasant. The appetizers in particular are excellent: Make sure to get the fritura platter (an appetizer plate laden with a variety of deep-fried treats), and opt for the carimañolas, a football-shape ball of yucca filled with spiced ground beef and deep-fried. It’s like a giant French fry stuffed with meat. Also great are the hojaldres, a light and mildly sweet fried dough. For entrées, try the camarones calypso, well-cooked shrimp in a spicy tomato broth, and if you’re curious, the cow foot soup (tastes much like chicken soup, as the cow foot merely adds body to the broth).

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Flying fish and cou cou, the national dish of Barbados, is fantastic at Cock’s Bajan Restaurant.

A less-known but certainly no less delicious option would be Cock’s Restaurant, a Bajan (rhymes with Cajun and refers to the people, culture and food of Barbados) restaurant that serves food I’ve seen nowhere else. Flying fish and cou cou, the national dish, is fantastic. Fried fillets of flying fish (a mild white fish) are peppery, tangy and moist. The fish is served drenched in gravy over cou cou, a very West African-like chunk of cornmeal thickened with okra slime that ends up like a very flavorful tamale or hard polenta. The kingfish, similar to a swordfish or mahi mahi, was a bit dry but still tasty. I grabbed a few codfish cakes as well, deep-fried balls of salt cod and dough, which were both greasy and delicious.

Glorias crown heights
Gloria’s, which is also a good option for roti or curries, also has a solid selection of standard juices.

One area where the existing and the new populations of Crown Heights happily agree is in their love of juice. There are dozens of juice shops all over the neighborhood, and unlike some gentrified neighborhoods, Crown Heights’s shops aren’t all new. Gloria’s, which is also a good option for roti or curries, has a solid selection of the standards: mauby (like root beer, made from the bark of a tree), peanut punch (tastes like a peanut butter milkshake), sea moss (very sweet, drunk for aphrodisiac properties), sorrel (tart, a little grape-like) and ginger beer (sweet and spicy, like you wish Canada Dry tasted). For the more familiar “green stuff that you can drink on your way back from yoga” drinks, try Caribbean-owned Veggies, which boasts a huge selection of juices and smoothies. Or you can skip the variations on green juice and instead grab one of Veggies’s vegan patties ($3), which are more flavorful than you might expect.

Many of those who identify with the Rastafari religion choose to eat in a manner that’s known as ital, a conception of eating in a way that benefits the body and the earth. There are few hard and fast rules for eating ital, but many interpret the philosophy as requiring a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Among the best of the many ital vegetarian options in Crown Heights is Natural Blend, a tiny storefront that does vegetarian and pescatarian favorites like ackee and saltfish (the national dish of Jamaica), okra, rice and peas and excellent vegetarian patties.

Of all the things that make Crown Heights appealing to new residents—cheap(ish) rent, historic brownstones, reliable express trains, proximity to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—one of the neighborhood’s greatest strengths has been largely ignored. This is a neighborhood where you can eat food rarely seen anywhere else in the city (flying fish) or ideal examples of New York standards (the beef patty). As food blogs rave about the neighborhood’s influx of—admittedly delicious—New American restaurants, it’s easy to miss a major part of what makes Crown Heights special. There are many amazing spots I didn’t list, but that’s intentional.

Go try them. Try all of them.  

Illustrations by Jessica Kemps

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