It’s been 10 years since Mark “Tastyfoods” Jackson set up his roadside jerk chicken stand in Wilmington, and ever since that day, neither he nor Delaware’s countless Caribbean fans have looked back.
Island cuisine in Delaware has been riding a steep trajectory toward the mainstream, thanks to its honest, home-style character, its unrestrained love of spice and the passions of people like Jackson, a native of Jamaica who serves his fans out of a “hole-in-the-wall” shop—his description—on Wilmington’s Fourth Street.
“There are a lot more restaurants these days. I’ve seen quite a few open and close,” he says. “I’m gonna assume people think there is money in the business.’’
People also think there’s just a lot to love in the food, he says. There’s a certain home-cooked character, an innate personality that speaks of passion and laughter and joy, he believes. And as more and more people discover the joys of more common dishes—jerk chicken, especially—they are becoming more inclined to explore deeply.
“Not everybody’s too familiar with curry goat or fish. I do dishes with more of an authentic type of vibe, like curry shrimp. I do a new thing where I do a pineapple jerk shrimp, and they’re loving that.”
Maybe one day, he hopes, he’ll see the folks lined up in the mornings for a breakfast of ackee and saltfish. “That’s like one of Jamaica’s top dishes. It’s a great dish to experience. The fruit mixed with codfish is excellent.
No offspring has ever had so many parents as the island-oriented, tropical-scented and unapologetically rustic cuisine of the Caribbean, where influences from Africa have cheerfully co-existed with a hodgepodge of colonial contributors, and where economic and geographical circumstances often demand food that is inexpensive, filling and simple. Some reliable themes emerge: meats flavored with jerk seasoning powered by the fruity-hot Scotch bonnet pepper, plantains and coconut, rice and beans. Whatever the ingredients or origins, bold, fulfilling tastes prevail.
For those who prefer their trip to the Caribbean with a side of chain-restaurant predictability, Bahama Breeze emphasizes crowd-pleasing island interpretations such as coconut shrimp and conch fritters, as well as such nowhere-near-the-Caribbean standards as quesadillas.
Christiana Mall, Newark, 266-7923 • website
The folks behind this family-run place rejoice in eating. Follow their wanderings from Jamaican dishes (curry goat, oxtail, ackee and saltfish) to less-expected, still-soulful treats (shrimp and grits, lobster mac-and-cheese) to universal appeal (lobster roll, crab cake sliders).
900 N. Orange St., Wilmington, 661-1100 • website
Ignore the one small table and two chairs and take your island experience to go in the customary Styrofoam at this rare-for-Dover Caribbean place, where the jerk chicken and plantains win raves.
313 W. Loockerman St., Dover, 730-3770 • Facebook
The folks of the Caribbean have no problem getting together with their Panamanian cousins for some cross-cultural feasting, thanks to owner Celestina and her riffs on Latin, Spanish and even Italian cuisine. The buzz: Jamaican pepper steak, empanadas.
100 Mario Drive, Bear, 328-5913 • website
One of New Castle County’s earliest Jamaican joints, D&H has gone from must-try to hit-and-miss among its fans, leaving them wondering if D&H is more of a nightclub with food than a restaurant with nightlife.
748 E. Chestnut Hill Road, Newark, 369-8826 • website
They like their Caribbean cooking with a pronounced West African accent at DH4, where dishes like cassava leaf stew and peanut butter stew add a cross-continental patois to this menu of homestyle Caribbean standards.
10 E. Fourth St., Wilmington, 655-5259 • website
Lobster mac and cheese at Bull Bay//Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
Saturday morning breakfasts bring, in typical Jamaican style, dishes of ackee and saltfish, and even creamy porridge. Lunch and dinner are better served by their jerk chicken and curried goat.
1639 Pulaski Hwy. (Salem Shopping Center), Bear, 832-8090 • website
The glorious standards are all here, along with such relatively elusive soul-food treats as fried whiting, barbecue and fried chicken, yams and collards.
1030 S. Market St., Wilmington, 332-2286 • website
The jerk chicken alone lifts OB’s past its rivals in the minds of many diners, who are also smitten with stew chicken and oxtails and entirely forgiving of its bare-bones menu and no-frills approach.
301 W. Fourth St., Wilmington, 654-1119
The price is right at this plain-and-simple shop on New Castle Avenue, where the food rises well above its spill-prone containers and the stew chicken with cabbage could easily feed two.
3125 New Castle Ave., New Castle, 655-2255 • Facebook
Nothing needs to be fancy when plain good cooking is simmering. “When you walk through the door, the music and smell of the food hits your soul,” one fan raves. So ignore the Styrofoam containers and focus on the top-rated ackee saltfish and the sauce-slathered oxtails.
727 W. Fourth St., Wilmington, 622-8004 • Facebook
TJ’s is also one of the few to offer the elusive and tantalizing Eskovitch fish, and may be entirely alone in serving Mannish water, a goat-based soup considered to be an aphrodisiac. TJ’s adds chicken, oxtail and cows feet.
2709 N. Market St., Wilmington, 397-8582
Past the Jamaican classics and the smattering of soul food, check out the surprisingly deep seafood menu, which delivers no fewer than eight varieties, each given the island treatment. The buzz: One of the few restaurants that serves a hard-to-find, irresistible, spicy-tangy Jamaican dish called Escovitch fish.
1156 S. Bay Road, Dover, 736-3663 • website