This year I’ve been teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia, and at the start of the semester I was moved from the main campus to one in the far north, right by the last stop on the Broad Street underground line. I was sad about this because it meant no more visits to Jamaica D’s, the food truck outside the main campus’s West building where I used to get my early evening meal. Jamaica D’s did a huge portion of fried fish, rice and beans, and sweet potatoes, drizzled with spicy sauce, for seven dollars. However, I need not have worried about my belly, because the walk from the Olney tube stop to the CCP campus contains at least three good Caribbean restaurants, and they fed me well all semester.
Olney is certainly not a rich area, and friends told me it wasn’t safe, but Broad Street was always busy, and so I didn’t feel that worried. What makes Camden and the areas surrounding Temple scary, for me, is not their poverty—I’ve seen that all over the world and have travelled safely through it many times—but the absence of life, the derelict buildings, the houses with collapsing roofs, the bare streets. In Olney, in contrast, I was offered dental plans. Food-wise, there was a good pizzeria, but I feel I eat too much pizza the rest of the week, and several Chinese restaurants, but I have a troubled relationship with Chinese food in America, as it frequently seems a horrible lessening of the food I have eaten in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore.
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!
And so I basically ate Carribean food two evenings a week all autumn. All three of the restaurants I describe below are walking distance from the Olney SEPTA station.
1. Denise’s Soul Food. Denise’s was the first restaurant I tried, and they serve hearty portions. I got a bucket’s worth of rice and beans, sweet potatoes, and fried fish for seven dollars, and the fish is always cooked to order. Denise’s is a pretty basic place, however, just a takeaway window and two arcade machines (Ms Pac Man and Marvel versus Capcom), and there isn’t much variety if you don’t eat meat. Even the jerk sauce has meat in it, a practice that other Caribbean cooks I spoke to found hard to believe.
2. Ron’s. Some of my students enthusiastically recommended Ron’s, and as soon as you walk in, you feel the warmth and energy of a popular, well-run place. Unlike Denise’s, there are tables at which you can eat, even though most customers seemed to be taking their food away. There is usually a queue, the waitresses moving fast to load up each new box with food, then placing them in the window to the kitchen so that the cooks can pour gravy over the rice. If you eat meat, Ron’s selection looks pretty amazing, the ox tails and jerk chicken and goat soaked in thick sauces. Ron’s also offered a very tasty budget meal for me—a huge portion of rice and beans (“rice and peas”) covered with fish gravy for three dollars fifty. However, because their main dishes are not cooked to order, everything sits on hot plates stewing, and this is not a good way to serve fried fish, so if I wanted a more substantial meal, I went elsewhere. For anyone who eats meat, this wouldn’t be such a problem, as most of the meat dishes continue cooking in their own sauce, and so don’t dry out the way the fish does.
3. My favourite of the three, however, was Lil Trini Cuisine, the farthest north, 5912 Old York Rd. Not only did I quickly get on chatting terms with the people who run it, but their food is exceptional, good enough to imagine making the trip back to nothern Philly just to try their fried and stewed kingfish again. Aside from two huge wheels of fish, first stewed then fried, Lil Trini serves a “gravy” of the sort of complexity that a chef in China would admire. This sauce of fish stock, slivered carrots and other vegetables coats their rice and peas and their fish, and I loved dipping the side dishes of macaroni pie or fried cabbage in the oily compartment which holds the purest gravy. Such a dish is not cheap (11 dollars), but it offers about two days’ worth of food. The shrimp roti was also stunning. At the end of the semester, it was sad to say goodbye to the family—everyone gave me a hug.