Cow’s foot. Oxtails. Stew peas. Pumpkin rice.
Bammy (bread made from cassava) or festival (fried sweetened bread).
Don’t forget goat’s head soup, which is more than just the title of a Stones album.
Caribbean food takes you down paths the average American would not venture, but few cuisines are as perfectly matched to summer as island food. Spicy jerk begging to be washed down with a bottle of Red Stripe. Roast snapper accompanied by plantains or patties, with a refreshing blast of Ting, the Jamaican grapefruit juice.
“Stir It Up” from Bob Marley and the Wailers played at several of the five Caribbean restaurants visited by the Munchmobile.
And then there was Peter Tosh singing “Get Up, Stand Up,” which would prove difficult for our Munchers later on.
Our primary mission was jerk — the Caribbean dry rub or seasoning — but we wandered up and down the menu, not to mention into the kitchen, even out the back door.
“Friday or Saturday night, I am back here cooking,” said Andre Stone, the affable owner of Stone’s Original Jerk Chicken in Paterson.
He stood in a narrow alley behind his strip mall restaurant; two grills stood at the ready. The tight quarters are in some ways a step up; the Jamaica-born Stone cooked and sold his jerk chicken in the backyard of a nearby bar before opening the restaurant five years ago.
Jerk can be simple or complicated. You can buy bottled jerk seasoning (Walker’s Wood is the best-known) or you can make it yourself.
“There are 32 ingredients in my jerk,” Stone said. A big smile lit up his face. ”I can give you 29, but not all 32.”
The ones he could reveal include pepper, garlic, paprika, nutmeg, mushrooms, onions and pimentos.
His jerk pork packed more spice and fire than the others sampled on our trip. The oxtail, tender meat in a rich, deep pineapple and ginger-infused sauce, may have been the day’s best.
But the Munchers, including a father/son and two brothers, couldn’t agree on much all day. Max Wieder judged the jerk chicken “by far” the best dish at Stone’s, while brother Ben described Stone’s jerk sauce as ”wet saucy goop.” Eric Van Orden singled out the oxtail and curry chicken. Just about everyone liked Stone’s fried chicken; Ben Kritz called it “delicious.” Yes, it’s not strictly Caribbean, but this is the Munchmobile, and we’ll eat anything.
No-Frills Taste thrills
Call the Pit Stop in Orange a Caribbean hole-in-the-wall — one table, chipped walls, sagging ceiling, Plexiglas window.
In other words, a Big Dog kind of place.
There was no way that one flimsy table would accommodate six Munchers, so we took our food across the street to Monte Irvin Orange Park, where we set up our official (and well-traveled) Munchmobile Folding Table.
The jerk chicken seem dried-out, even if David Kritz judged it “delicious.” The jerk pork, tender and spicy, is markedly better. The oxtail, with a carrot and cabbage-dotted sauce, came as a nice surprise. Good beef patties, too; Ben Wieder admired their ”buttery taste” and “crisp and flaky texture.”
The Pit Stop is low on charm, but there’s some good food bubbling away in those pots and pans behind the Plexiglas.
Real Jamaican Jerk An’ Ting sounds like it would be even more of a hole-in-a-wall than the Pit Stop, but this green-door, green-walled cafe, with just five tables, was the most charming of our five stops. The owner is Iva Thompson, who grew up in Wakefield, Jamaica, and started cooking when she was 6 years old.
Her Jamaican jerk sauce will get your attention, if not take it hostage; this supremely spicy sauce is made with Scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, ginger, pepper and scallions. Pour it over meat, pour it over your fingers; it’s that good. Buy a bottle or two to take home.
The festival — brown-sugared fried dough — will put your stomach on island time.
The jerk wings are more smoky than spicy, and nearly irresistible.
David Kritz found them “full of flavor,” while Ben Wieder admired their “nice kick.”
The oxtail is not as tasty as the Pit Stop’s — appearances can be deceiving — and there’s little jerk, or character, in the jerk burger. Eric Van Orden was the restaurant’s biggest fan, describing the curry goat as “great” and the cabbage and plantains the day’s best.
Packing a punch
Our first glimpse into the kitchen at A Taste of the Caribbean in West Orange was of two smiling, grandmotherly-looking cooks, which is always a good thing. The owner is Patricia Maginley, who worked in banking for 30 years before opening the restaurant three years ago.
Caribbean drinks win the award for colorful names; the ones here include Double Trouble Carrot Punch and Front End Lifter, described as a “magnum punch” on the label.
We tried the homemade sorrel juice, with its serious gingery bite. “Enough to either put hair on, or take hair off, your chest,” Ben Wieder observed.
The jerk chicken may have been the day’s most distinctive jerk. But the chicken curry is as forgettable as elevator music. More Munch disagreement: Van Orden thought the stew peas among the day’s least desirable dishes, but David Kritz “absolutely loved” it.
Stir it up
Forty-five-rpm singles under the glass-topped tables provide a quick lesson in Jamaican music — “Rebel Music,” Bob Marley; “Brown Eyes,” the Saints; “Do Me Good,” Roy Shirley.
On the wall are several of the Jamaican board games known as ludo. Reggae music thumps soothingly in the background. The co-owner is a collector and DJ of Jamaican music, and his wife is nicknamed … Munchie?
“I don’t know where that came from,” says Sophia Taylor, who was born in Jamaica.
The two own Munchie’s in South Orange, in the space once occupied by the Island Life Cafe, where Sophia Taylor was a cook. The restaurant has been open 14 months, and Reid Taylor estimates he and his wife have taken off maybe 14 days in that time.
Ting will make you sing, but if you want a healthy blast of the islands, try some of their homemade carrot juice. You’re probably thinking: “Carrot juice? I can get that at the healthy food store.”
Not this carrot juice. Besides juiced carrots, it’s made with orange juice, sugar and “a whole bunch of limes,” according to Reid Taylor.
It’s dynamite. So is most of the food. The meat is surpassingly tender. Not overcooked, either. The jerk chicken and pork are packed with flavor and fire. Max Wieder loved the “very juicy” oxtail, while brother Ben singled out the jerk ribs’ ”nice char-grilled taste.” Eric Van Orden described both the jerk chicken and ribs as “fantastic.”
Reid Taylor makes the jerk; ingredients include Scotch bonnet peppers, black pepper, pimento, clove, garlic, ginger, Italian peppers “and some secret ingredients.”
There was one major disappointment: There wasn’t a stretch of beach, and shady palm trees, where we could kick back.
No time for any sun-drenched reveries, though. There was more work to do, ground to cover, food to eat. The Munch beat goes on, maybe not as pulsing and hypnotic as island reggae, but just as insistent.
MEET THE MUNCHERS
Muncher, Ben Kritz, 11, from Bridgewater. Orange. NJ 6/18/11 11:29:43 AM Munchmobile Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
It’s a celebration of Caribbean cuisine as with Muncher, Eric Van Orden from Woodbridge. Orange, NJ 6/18/11 11:29:43 AM Munchmobile Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
It’s a celebration of Caribbean cuisine with Muncher Ben Wieder, from Westfield. Orange, NJ 6/18/11 11:29:43 AM Munchmobile Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
It’s a celebration of Caribbean cuisine with Max Wieder from Westfield. Orange, NJ 6/18/11 11:29:43 AM Munchmobile Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
It’s a celebration of Caribbean cuisine with Muncher, David Kritz, from Bridgewater, Orange, NJ 6/18/11 11:29:43 AM Munchmobile Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
Ben Kritz (Bridgewater)
Why do we take kids every so often on the Munchmobile? Because they’re often more fun than the adults. Ben certainly was.
Quote: “The problem was, the meat was tough.”
David Kritz (Bridgewater)
Ben’s dad. Last-minute replacement after scheduled Muncher canceled. He filled in ably.
Quote: “The coconut water … helped with the heat.”
Eric Van Orden (Woodbridge)
Favorite foods include seafood, Portuguese, tapas, Southern, Cajun, steaks, Indian and Thai. He passes up any restaurant with a drive-through.
Quote: “The cow foot was heavy and gelatinous.”
Ben Wieder (Westfield)
Past captain of the University of Pennsylvania fencing team. Now in Penn’s graduate program in physics.
Quote: “The jerk was a wet saucy goop on top of quite tender chicken.”
WHERE WE MUNCHED
A Taste of the Caribbean: 14 Main St., West Orange; (973) 325-8844. Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Munchie’s: 307 Irvington Ave., South Orange; (973) 821-5471. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Pit Stop Barbecue & Restaurant: 107 Central Ave., Orange: (973) 677-9788. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Real Jamaican Jerk An’ Ting: 500 Hamilton St., Somerset; (732) 745-7300. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. Website: realjamaicanjerk.com
Stone’s Original Jerk Chicken: 506 Ellison St., Paterson; (862) 668-0271. Hours: 7 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday; 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Loved Andre Stone’s passion, and his curry chicken and oxtails; the heat and spice at Real Jamaican Jerk An’ Ting; and the jerk chicken at A Taste of the Caribbean. But our second stop was the standout. Give Top Dog honors this week to Munchie’s in South Orange.