If you’ve ever vacationed in the Caribbean or the Bahamas, you already know the three essentials for a good time: an appreciation of reggae and calypso music, a taste for rum and a fearless attitude when it comes to sampling the local fare. Oh, and the abandonment of embarrassment when trying to do the limbo, which goes back to the rum thing.
On the recent ride to the Caribbean Breeze restaurant on Stockton Boulevard, a trio of lunch pals and I referenced a playlist of tunes to get in the mood for some island food. “Jamaica Farewell” by Harry Bellafonte,“Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc, “Lively Up Yourself” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and two by the Beach Boys – “Kokomo” and “Sloop John B.” We threw in Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” just because it rocks.
The very name Caribbean Breeze conjures images of hidden beaches, stands of coconut palms and, as they say, gin-clear waters. It’s so evocative that it should be the name of a house paint. Oh, wait, it is. That would be Benjamin Moore’s No. 652, an “aqua with an inner glow that can light up a room.”
We found a small, well-organized dining room in shades of aqua, pale yellow and white, cloth napkins (a pleasant surprise) and a concise menu of dishes based on Jamaican favorites ($3 to $14). On offer are three chicken entrees, four of fish and three meats. Appetizers include “Jamaican-style” chicken and beef patties. Surprisingly, the “crab” in the crab cakes and stuffed mushrooms is imitation.
We settled on jerk chicken, grilled red snapper, goat in curry sauce and oxtail stew in sauce. The dishes came with crispy-creamy fried plantains and mounds of tasty rice ’n’ red beans. For drinks, we went with D&G-brand Jamaican “kola champagne” (orange) and ginger beer, both pleasantly dry and not over-sugared.
We love jerk chicken, that fiery rendition seasoned with, among other things, garlic, thyme, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and allspice (dried berries from the pimento tree), fired with scotch bonnet peppers and traditionally smoked over pimento wood. We didn’t find the crisp skin and heat that characterize the dish (and obviously not the smoke), but we did find a lot of salt. Dashes of Ocho Rios-brand scotch bonnet pepper sauce on the succulent, tender fowl wrestled the salt to the ground.
The “red snapper” found on California menus is not true red snapper at all, but any of the many species of rockfish known by that catch-all name. Real red snapper live in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, not the Pacific. Our thin fillet was fresh-tasting and well handled, though we agreed a sauce of some type would have elevated it.
We got to the meat of the matter with curried goat and stewed oxtail. In both, we found tender (but salty) bone-in chunks of meat and potatoes, but longed for more seasoning. The succulent oxtail had more depth of flavor than the goat in yellow curry, tasted milder and was voted best dish on the table.
Days later, co-owner Vincent Semper (with wife Amelia-Kelly Semper) was on the phone. He’s from St. Kitts in the West Indies and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and immigrated to New York City. After winning a scholarship from a culinary school there, he worked in restaurants in France for a year. Back in New York, he cooked for the TGI Fridays and Houlihan’s chains. He and his wife, who is from Panama, opened Caribbean Breeze in 2012.
“The recipes are my own, but they have (an island pedigree),” Semper said. “Curry chicken is found on every Caribbean island, and our yellow curry is Caribbean style.”
Amelia-Kelly Semper is the restaurant’s dessert specialist. Judging by the way the lunch pals inhaled her almond-flavored pound cake, she’s doing a fine job.
Chile relleno has so many delicious variations
Like those American classics the hamburger and the pizza, the Mexican chile relleno is simple in concept yet infinite in variation. Its template is straightforward enough: Stuff a poblano pepper with cheese and maybe meat, dip it into egg-based batter and fry it.
Enter the variations: Substitute a half-dozen other chili varieties for the poblano. Choose from a dozen cheeses. Will the meat be shredded, minced or diced? Pork, beef, chicken, crab or shrimp? How about picadillo, with ground beef, raisins and capers? Beer batter or egg batter? Deep-fried or pan-fried? Ranchera sauce or tomatillo sauce?
The menu describes it as a “battered poblano chile stuffed with cheese and red chile pork sitting atop a black bean purée and spicy tomato sauce” ($15).
That description doesn’t do it justice. The large, fragrant chili is fried to crispness and oozes melted cheese, pieces of rich pork and luscious juices when cut with knife and fork. We let all that mingle with the pool of red sauce and purée on the plate and used tortilla chips to lift delicious scoops of it. It tastes best when eaten on the patio.