The joint was being hit by wave after wave of customers rolling in for takeout, receding with their dinners, then being replaced with more people coming in empty-handed and leaving with big white bags of to-go styros trailing smears of island spice and thick sugarcane sauces in their wake, the smells so vibrant that they were almost like colors staining the air. There's a weird sort of anti-Levittown voodoo -- some subconscious trashing of all your cultural jingoism -- that creeps into the brain when you find any good ethnic establishment not just surviving, but thriving in the heart of somewhere that it shouldn't be. A Vietnamese noodle house in Koreatown, a Korean church in a Mexican neighborhood, a Mexican pastelleria in an old Italian ghetto -- what have you. They take on this sense of otherness, giving you the feeling that, just like Mickey Mouse says, it is really a small world after all. And this little Caribbean restaurant sandwiched between a butcher's shop and a hair salon just feels right. Like, of course, there should be a Caribbean restaurant here, and why hasn't there been one here all along?
Before last December, when this space became Caribbean Cuisine, it was a chicken-wings and barbecue joint. Before that? Who knows. Things change quick in this restaurant climate. The salon next door, though, has been in place for a while, and that's where Vivienne Donaldson was working -- one of the many places she was working -- when the wing joint closed. She wasn't a hairstylist, didn't do nails or extensions. She was a caterer who worked with a lot of the barbershops and salons in the area, and when the folks at the beauty shop told her that the space next door was going to be open soon, she rallied her family -- and she and her husband, Charles, their son, Paul, and Paul's aunt, Winsome Bambury, decided that maybe it was time to get into the restaurant business for real, with an actual address and a place to call home.
The family is from Jamaica, and although they've been in the States for twenty years, cooking Caribbean seemed the natural thing. Round out the menu with some soul food -- the "Plus" in Caribbean Cuisine Plus being the collard greens, hot links and fried chicken of the American Southern tradition -- as well as a little this-and-that, and bingo: the American Dream, restaurant-style. Everyone pitched in. They opened the shop. And the crowds were just there.
The Donaldsons have been looking for a bigger space ever since.
Ahead of me in line was a doddering grandmother in Minnie Pearl glasses picking up curried goat for her son, who was coming over to visit. At one of the half-dozen tables in the dining room -- a space sparsely decorated with the red, green and yellow of the Jamaican flag, along with oil-on-canvas renditions of old island travel posters and a few oddly pixilated but strangely homey pictures of family, folks and island life -- was a Middle Eastern family eating jerk chicken and collard greens. Behind me, a cop was waiting on a takeout order. It was one of those neighborhood scenes that renews my faith in the palates and eating habits of my culinary fellow travelers. And their tastes -- because this food was great. Every dish I tried at that late lunch was simple, generously portioned, laden with the freight and history of southern-latitude peasant cooking that the Donaldsons (and aunt Winsome) had brought with them from Jamaica. I got out for around ten bucks, feeling good and feeling full.
Funny thing is, I can't tell you anything about my two other dinners that night, because I don't remember them. I'm sure I ate somewhere nice, with white tablecloths, fawning servers and strangled squab in mango jus with balsamic-glazed rattlesnake testicles or something equally horrifying as the special, but that's it. I'm drawing the big blank on specifics like the names of the restaurants and what, exactly, I forked sparingly into my indiscriminate maw. But I have no problem recalling that grandmother in front of me at the counter at Caribbean Cuisine, the fizzing bubbles against my nose when I took my first sip of ginger beer, and the sweety-spicy musky dark-meat taste of a chicken leg in jerk sauce eaten with my fingers. That all hung with me. Like Harry Crews once wisely said: The good shit sticks.