It’s lunchtime at Elmont’s Yard Flavors, and the line is building. When a customer orders jerk chicken, the woman behind the counter grabs half a roasted bird, then hacks it apart with a few swings of a cleaver. “Extra gravy?” she asks. “Everything is better with extra gravy.”
Yes, it is — especially when the gravy is laced with allspice, garlic, cinnamon, and sugar. It used to be that there was only a handful of places to get jerk chicken and other West Indian dishes on Long Island. Today, most Long Islanders are living within a 20-minute drive of a place serving curried goat or Haitian griot.
This web of eateries caters to Long Island’s swelling West Indian population — it has grown by about 6 percent since 2010, to roughly 88,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And it’s a boon to all, as the West Indian food that has followed is a complex, deeply flavored cuisine of long marinades and careful cooking, usually offered at easy prices.
A Caribbean-food heat map of the Island would show hot spots in Islip, Amityville, Baldwin, Elmont, Freeport and Coram, and the majority of the West Indians in those areas are of Haitian descent. “The Haitian immigrant population is moving both north and east of New York, all the way to Suffolk County,” said Georges Fouron, professor in the Africana Studies department at Stony Brook University. “That migratory trend is getting stronger through the years.”
Even so, Haitian Creole food — a mashup of French, African and Spanish culinary influences — is slightly harder to find on Long Island than Jamaican fare. It also has a bit more kick. “Haitian food tends to be a little spicier,” said Tatiana Leforest, whose parents, Gary and Sabitri Leforest, own Mixed Notes Café in Elmont. Thyme, parsley and scallions all make frequent appearances in Haitian marinades, and signature dishes include malanga fritters — also known as accra — as well as griot, the cubes of marinated and fried pork, and rice studded with black mushrooms called djon djon. Don’t skip the pikliz, a vinegar-based garnish whose acids bring this weighty food to life.
By contrast, Jamaican food relies on a distinctly Indian-influenced mélange of spices such as allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, cloves and sugar; these are often used to anoint meats which marinate for days, resulting in silky braised oxtail stew or succulent jerk chicken. Whether those dishes are four-alarm spicy or caramelized and nutty often depends on a chef’s closely guarded family’s spice blends. “One person may put ginger in their oxtail, and another might not,” said George Marriott, chef and co-owner of Trelawny’s Restaurant in Shirley.
Despite food that packs a serious caloric punch, or perhaps because of it, Jamaican cuisine is augmented by a roster of fizzy, sometimes mildly alcoholic roots tonics laced with botanicals such as sarsaparilla, as well as fresh juices of sorrel, ginger and pineapple.
We’ve rounded up 10 places to get your Caribbean food fix on Long Island. But look around and you’ll see many more to choose from.
Daffodils International Cuisine
Daffodils International Cuisine (2819 Jerusalem Ave., North Bellmore): There’s perhaps only one chef who has cooked for both LL Cool J and the Jamaican prime minister, and these days you’ll find him turning out linguine with conch and basa filets with red-pepper coulis in the back of a marigold-hued storefront in North Bellmore. While chef Ray Wilson’s breakfast-to-dinner repertoire includes solidly American fare such as steaks and fried chicken, it is his Caribbean-influenced pastas and fish dishes that show off Wilson’s talent for Jamaican-Italian fusion. More info: 516-900-1668, daffodilsrestaurant.com
Linguine with conch is served at Daffodils International Cuisine in North Bellmore.
Coalhouse Grill (844 Merrick Rd., Baldwin): The granddaughter of a Jamaican butcher, chef and co-owner Nathalee Francis shows a deft hand with meats such as twice-cooked oxtail, jerk chicken served with mango salsa, and curried goat inside this Baldwin storefront. Francis also serves fresh-pressed juices and zesty house-made ginger beer. More info: 516-442-7063
The jerk pork at Coalhouse Grill in Baldwin spends 24 hours in a basic rub that includes Scotch bonnet pepper, pimentos and thyme.
Jamaican Bickle (327 Oak St., Uniondale): This no-frills takeout spot near Hofstra University has been dishing up Jamaican breakfasts of ackee and sailfish and lunch plates of curried goat and caramelized jerk chicken for almost a decade. Since chef Devon Burchell is a Seventh-Day Adventist, you won’t find shellfish or pork here — but you will find delicious escovitch fish, fried whitefish fillets topped with spicy, vinegary hot and sweet peppers and onions. Get them to go, or dig in at one of a few tables. More info: 516-280-4394
Callaloo and salt fish with green bananas and yellow yam at Jamaican Bickle in Uniondale.
Dunn’s River Lounge
Dunn’s River Lounge (93 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre): Owner Naala Royale started Dunn’s River 13 years ago as a hobby, serving drinks and appetizers on weekends while she continued to work in the corporate world during the week. Today, Dunn’s River Lounge is a hot spot that pulls in clientele from New City and beyond for reggae nights, oxtail stew, escovitch wings, and tall glasses of rum punch laced with allspice. The kitchen stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends and during the summer, there’s a patio open out back. More info: 516-764-6540, dunnsriverlounge.com
Escoveitch wings is a favorite at Dunn's River Lounge in Rockville Centre.
Yard Favors (466 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont): Chef and owner Gregory Harris marinates his jerk chicken for three days, which renders it as succulent as can be at this busy takeout counter. The server will cut the bird to bits with a cleaver, then load it atop rice with a side of vinegary cabbage. This is also one of the few eateries serving traditional breakfasts such as butterbeans and saltfish. Yard Favors’ flaky patties are from Mount Vernon’s Royal Caribbean Bakery. More info: 516-233-1699
Steamed snapper with fried green plantains, bammy okra, pumpkin, and carrots at Yard Flavors in Elmont.
Mixed Notes Café
Mixed Notes Café (333 Elmont Rd., Elmont): Live music, rum punches and classic Haitian dishes mingle at Mixed Notes Café, a 2-year-old restaurant whose chef, Marie Jose Narcisse, interprets the family recipes of the owners, the Laforest family. Griot, dinde (turkey) creole and herring cooked with cassava are hearty and filling — and the kitchen makes it own paté, or flaky pastries stuffed with either beef, chicken or herring. More info: 516-328-2233, mixednotes.com
Fried red snapper with green plantains over mesclun salad, black mushroom rice and griot with sweet plantains at Mixed Notes Cafe in Elmont.
Gingerbites (730 E. Jericho Tpke. Huntington Station): This unassuming storefront on Jericho Turnpike masks a cozy, colorful oasis that has been open less than a year but already earned chef Maria Michele Dustil a reputation for fried griot, malanga fritters, bannan etoufee and stewed conch. Don’t miss the fritay, or platter of fried meats, plantains, breadfruit and yucca — or plantain cups stuffed with sausage and bell peppers. More info: 631-427-2483, gingerbitescatering.com
Stuffed plantain cups are served at Gingerbites in Huntington Station.
Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace
Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace (225 Hempstead Tpke., West Hempstead): In a single trip to this chockablock market, one can pick up frozen papaya, guinea hen tea, roots tonic, pimento oil, soursop ice cream and a prepaid phone card in one fell swoop. But don’t overlook the lunch counter at the back, where you might score kingfish steaks smothered in escovitch sauce or spicy, nut-brown jerk chicken wings. Wash them down with ice-cold swigs of Ting. More info: 516-858-0054, sams24-7.com
Oxtail, rice and peas and fresh salad with tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and carrots at Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace in Hempstead.
Trelawny’s Restaurant (921 Montauk Hwy., Shirley): If you can lure him from the kitchen into the cozy, brick-lined dining room, chef-owner Donald Marriott is a walking encyclopedia of Jamaican cuisine, a craft he began to learn as a child when tasked with grating coconut or browning chicken. Marriott is a stickler for detail who thinks the herbs, produce and proteins taste different here than on the islands, and adjusts cooking times and marinades accordingly. He uses water-and-herb bases for his stews— such as oxtail — and cooks fresh seafood to order. It’s worth the wait. More info: 631-772-7722
Spicy Jerk chicken comes with a side of rice and beans, cabbage and sweet plantains at Trelawny's Restaurant in Shirley.
Marvie’s Caribbean Cuisine
Marvie’s Caribbean Cuisine (99 Middle Country Rd., Coram): Tucked into a Coram strip mall, Marvie’s offers both Jamaican groceries and steaming plates of “yard food,” or hearty Jamaican fare cooked by chef-owner Steve McKail. The rich coconut curry chicken is to die for, and the earthy, stoneground-wheat roti bread has char marks on the outside and can folded around a number of soupy, meaty fillings. McKails’s jerk isn’t limited to chicken: Depending on the day, McKail might do a jerk salmon or jerk lobster tail, too. The recipes originate with McKail’s grandmother Marvie, whose portrait hangs on the wall behind the register. More info: 631-346-3999, marviescaribbeancuisine.com
Oxtail is served with rice and beans, cabbage and sweet plantains at Marvie's Caribbean Cuisine in Coram.