Just a few years ago, not a single restaurant in Portland called itself Jamaican. This town's never exactly been a hotbed of Caribbean culture; there are nearly three times as many Jamaicans in Brooklyn as on the entire West Coast.
But there are signs that Caribbean culture is finally making small inroads into our corner of the Northwest—with the number of Portlanders from the West Indies more than doubling between 2010 and the most recent census stats in 2013. And the food scene is keeping pace: Four new Jamaican spots have opened up in a little over a year, all in North and Northeast Portland.
The breadth of their menus varies considerably, from six items to 40, but everyone serves jerk chicken, Jamaica's sweet-hot barbecue plate slathered in the country's trademark jerk sauce made with allspice and Scotch bonnet, usually served up with slaw, rice and beans.
We decided to stop by and sample Portland's newfound tropical bounty.
Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine
441 N Killingsworth St., 503-289-1423\
When Jamaica-born Keacean Ransom first opened her Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine food cart in 2014, there wasn't a single Jamaican spot in Portland; before that, she'd been cooking out of her home for barber shops and hair salons.
Since last summer, Homestyle is a brick-and-mortar jerk shack, with sweet-spicy smoke spilling out of a barrel smoker in front of her tiny brickface storefront next to the Florida Room. Ransom's almost always in attendance—and on our last visit she was repping Jamaican colors all the way down to her pair of bright green-and-yellow Nikes.
The shop is bare bones, and the service sometimes diffident—above reggae rhythms, our soundtrack on a recent visit was an argument with a customer over a coupon—but the offerings are the most consistently flavorful and satisfying among all the four Jamaican eateries, especially an oxtail plate ($17) whose tender meat was beautifully caramelized into its plummy sauce, and a rich goat curry. Plantains served on the side were lightly crisped into the barest fruit-sugar shell, a bit airier than most renditions.
And then there's the jerk. Jerk sauce at its best is an indelicate balance of intense sweet and hot flavors, and among all the Jamaican spots in town, Homestyle is the most blessedly liberal with Scotch-bonnet heat alongside that sweetness and allspice—not to mention the deep smoke flavor on its jerk chicken quarter ($6), pinkness seeping into the moist meat. Sit out on the patio, and let that sweet heat seep into your pores.
8307 N Ivanhoe St., 503-462-9710, jamaicahousepdx.com.
In the former Baowry in St. Johns, Jamaica House chef Simba Puma might be in the kitchen cooking up jerk. Or it's possible that the lifelong Rastafarian—who grew up in Saint Ann Parish, birthplace of Bob Marley—might be out in the house's side yard pounding keys with funk-rock-reggae group the Roaring Lions.
Inside, Jamaica House's elbow-bar space feels a bit improvised, with a sparse smattering of small tables in odd corners. On our visit, they were still waiting on their license to serve the liquor stored behind the bar, and when we ordered the tofu our server paused. "Are you sure you want the tofu?" he asked, expectantly. Yes, we said–only to see him run out to the store for a tofu run, in an admirable bit of hustle.
The chicken curry was solid, and the jerk sauce terrific—low on pepper heat, but heavy on deep, earthy, herbal notes that made it the richest sauce on offer at any Jamaican eatery in town. But the meat commits a cardinal smoked-meat sin—all the flavor's in the sauce, not deep in the meat, which robbed the jerk chicken of some of its flavor and made us very glad for the tofu. That jerk tofu sopped up every bit of that earthy sweetness.
Yaad-Style Jamaican Cuisine
3532 NE Martin Luther King Boulevard, 503-432-8066, yaadstylejamaicancuisine.com
Yaad-Style Jamaican Cuisine is a spacious, sparse-walled spot on Martin Luther King Boulevard near Fremont, with walls that alternate between brick and bare yellow and green, plus a small tutorial in Jamaican patois on the wall by the door. The two-month-old eatery offers a vast menu, but on a Thursday at lunchtime, this involved a long list of the things we could not have, including most of the patties on offer.
Too bad. The one patty they did have—a veggie patty flown in from New York—was the one in Portland I'd heartily recommend. (At least two spots seemed to be using the same brand of orange patty.) But this veggie patty? It was crisp-doughed, hearty and popping with heat and flavor. It was a perfect spiced-veggie Hot Pocket. Always trust Brooklyn when it comes to patties, apparently.
But on our visit, the friendly, solitary staffer seemed a bit overwhelmed. The jerk wings ($10 for seven) were decent if a bit soggy, and the goat in their curry was unfortunately overcooked and a bit dry, requiring healthy gulps of Ting soda, essentially the refreshing Jamaican answer to Jarritos grapefruit.
1540 N Killingsworth St., 971-222-4526.
Just 20 blocks down Killingsworth from Jamaican Homestyle, Michael Dell and Cedric Stewart—who comes from Montego Bay, Jamaica—smoke up jerk chicken and pork out of a trellised green-and-white cart right across the street from Hat Yai.
only a month old, they're the newest of any of the Jamaican eateries, and somehow already the busiest among our visits.
While the jerk sauce didn't match the satisfying, earthy notes of Jamaica House's sauce in St. Johns, the chicken itself has a deeper jerk flavor than at any of the other spots, seasoned all the way down to the bone.
The wings achieved a perfect caramelized, just-crisp texture, but take note, they're popular enough that the cart is often out of them; other offerings include fatty slices of jerk pork and a flaky slab of fish. Plantains were a bit dry—as were almost all the Portland plantains, none of which live up to the caramelized perfection of those underripe gourds at the Jamaican Taste pop-up at beer bars around Portland.
But the mood at Jamaican Jerk is lively, with a steady stream of customers unusual for such a new cart—with reggae jamming out of a boom box on the sidetables. Though a cart and not a restaurant, it's somehow still the best hang: It feels good to sit out here in the sticky Portland heat, dripping extra-hot sauce onto that moist, seasoned jerk chicken while the radio sings the praises of Jah.