While my Facebook feed fills with pictures of friends' beach vacations, I'm left behind in Richmond's sweltering heat without a palm tree in sight. There are, however, a few secret ways to enjoy the flavors of the islands without leaving town. Here are some of my favorite options:
On one of my visits, 15 people waited in line — during heat of more than 100 degrees — for the popular Caribbean Grill food cart on the campus of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. The chef and owner is a native of Trinidad and Tobago who stays close to his roots and returns home for two months every year. That authenticity shows through in some of the best Caribbean food I've eaten stateside. The jerk chicken ($6.75) is tender, juicy and piquant, and though boneless, does not suffer for it. Because it's not as spicy as other versions, lovers of heat should request the homemade hot sauce, which is good enough to be bottled. Many dishes are offered in pitas for portability, or as platters with rice and cabbage.
Recent visits offered as specials Tobago lime chicken ($8.50) and fried fish with collards and corn bread ($8.50.) The fish was moist with a crispy and flavorful breading, the corn bread was enhanced with savory spices, and the collards had a spicy kick. Be sure to try the daily variety of fruity lemonade ($1.50), especially the strawberry, which hits the perfect balance of tart and sweet. If you don't work in the area, it's worth walking, taking the bus, or fighting for parking to try this cart.
11th St. between Broad and Marshall streets
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Carena's Jamaican Grille
Carena Ives first came to prominence through her cooking at Jamaica House on Broad Street near VCU. While Jamaica House has become frustratingly inconsistent, Carena's Jamaican Grille, which started as a partnership with Jimmy Sneed, is still producing quality food. The restaurant also has the distinction of being one of the few Jamaican spots that is set up for more than takeout, with a small bar and a dining room. Carena's menu includes both authentic Jamaican fare as well as fusion dishes, such as pizza with oxtail, jerk chicken panini and curry goat burritos. The soups are worth a try; pumpkin soup with curry and coconut is available every day ($3.95 and $5.95) and is supplemented with specials such as fisherman's soup with okra, flounder and dumplings ($4.95 and $7.95).
Among the traditional dishes, Carena's is making some of the best oxtail in town ($13.50 lunch, $16.95 dinner), served stewed on the bone in a rich, mild sauce. The stewed snapper ($17.95) is fried whole, then simmered in a spicy vinegar-based sauce with peppers, onions and carrots. The conch fritters ($9.95) are a good way to start the meal, even if the conch-to-filler ratio could be higher.
7102 Midlothian Turnpike
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-close.
The Jerk Pit
A Richmond mainstay for more than a decade, its continued popularity is well-deserved. Though the jerk varies in spiciness on different visits (which at least lets you know it's homemade), it is consistently excellent whether hot or not. Various options are available, including jerk wings ($5.75), ribs ($6.25), traditional jerk chicken and pork, as well as a vegetarian jerk tempeh ($5.25).
The curry goat ($10) is excellent, better than at some fancier restaurants in town that try to pull off this dish. Tender chunks of goat are served in a well-spiced, complex curry gravy with rice, peas and fried plantains. No meal is complete at the Jerk Pit without a homemade ginger beer ($1.80), possibly my favorite nonalcoholic drink in Richmond. Spicy and sweet, it's addictive and a perfect complement to a Jamaican meal. S
2713 W. Broad St.
Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Saturday Noon-7:30 p.m.