It's Really Hard To Find Caribbean Food In LA. You Can Start Here
Los Angeles is lucky to have the most interesting food culture in the United States. It might even be the best place to eat in the world. But some food isn't easy to locate around here. In our "Hard To Find" series, we'll explore L.A.'s underrepresented cuisines. Because they are here — if you know where to look.
It's hard to define Caribbean food, as it's a region that has, over the centuries, become home to people from all over the world, mainly via colonialism and slavery. The food tends to be highly-spiced and vegan-friendly with a lot of starchy vegetables, legumes, fruits, rice, plus seafood and grilled and braised meats. Popular dishes vary by island. Corned beef and macaroni and cheese and are common in the Bahamas, which has an overlapping culture with the American South. Cuban food is infused with Spanish and Italian elements, and Trinidadian food is truly international, with a strong Indian presence felt in its curries, heavy use of chickpeas and breads like roti.
When people in Los Angeles say Caribbean food, they're often referring to Jamaican food, specifically Jamaican food via New York City.
"[Transplants] are always wondering if L.A. has Caribbean food like New York," says Karuba Smith, owner of the three-month-old Jamaican restaurant Karuba's Yardy Kitchen in Inglewood. "When they taste my food, they say it's right up there."
New York is the epicenter of America's Jamaican expat community. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 300,000 Jamaican-Americans live in the state of New York. California, by comparison, has a mere 30,000.
"There are lots and lots of Jamaicans in New York and from all the other islands, so the food is really top of the line in New York City," Smith says, "the patties especially."
He moved to Los Angeles from Jamaica 27 years ago and, more recently, developed a menu of Jamaican classics for the hot food section in the Playa Vista Whole Foods. After his beef patties — ground beef spiced with thyme, chilis and allspice then wrapped in a savory pastry pocket — won two company competitions, customers encouraged him to open a restaurant.
"That motivated me a lot. I'd always wanted a catering truck and was focusing on getting one but I happened to drive by this place," he says about his airy, fast-casual restaurant, located in a strip mall next to a beauty supply store. Many of his Whole Foods customers are making the trek to Karuba's Yardy Kitchen to eat jerk chicken and sip a grapefruit-flavored Ting as they sit on the mismatched furniture.
If Southern California has a hub for Caribbean food, it's in the northern Inglewood/View Heights area.
Not big, as hubs go.
Avane Johnson, founder of L.A.'s Caribbean Young Professional Association and the recent Jamaican JerkFest, says the local Caribbean restaurant scene is small and spread out. And it's dominated by Jamaican restaurants. "There are mom-and-pop restaurants around L.A. but it's very divided. It's not in one place," she says.
At Karuba's Yardy Kitchen, Smith sticks to a strict Jamaican menu but he may expand into other cuisines, like Trinidadian food. "Some customers ask me for roti. I'm thinking about it," he says.
Hungry for Caribbean food? Here are some restaurants to check out.
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Karuba's Yardy Kitchen
Karuba Smith sells Jamaican specialties including escovitch fish (pan-fried and served with a spicy-hot, pickle-heavy sauce), ackee and saltfish (a scramble of flaked fish and ackee, a fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a lychee) and his award-winning patties. (They're fantastic.) You'll also spot a refrigerator case stocked with Ting, Jamaica's favorite soda.
1300 Centinela Ave., Inglewood. 424-312-1055.
Smith recommends Naturaliart for Jamaican standards like curry goat, curry shrimp and oxtail. The decor is pared-down, dominated by bulletin boards and framed portraits of Bob Marley and other notable people. The big menu offers some rare (in L.A.) finds like ital stew, a vegetarian stew typically made with coconut milk, squash, okra, plantains and taro, and cow foot stew.
3426 Washington Blvd., Arlington Heights. 323-737-9277, natraliartrestaurant.com.
A quirky little storefront, mostly for to-go orders, Donna's serves huge portions of brown stew chicken, jerk chicken, vegetable stew and whatever else the cooks are in the mood to make that day. The juices, homemade and often blended with a touch of ginger, are a standout.
12855 Prairie Ave., Hawthorne. 310-675-4636.
Mar's Caribbean Gardens
Mar's serves Belizean food so you'll find all manner of fried tortillas — salbutes, tostadas, empanadas, garnaches. Order their ducunn as a side dish. Also known as dukunu, they're small and sweet, resembling Mexican tamales but made with roasted corn and coconut milk. The name comes from a Garifuna word that essentially means "boiled cornbread." (Garifuna is an Arawakan language with different European words and phrases mixed in. The Garifuna people are descended from a number of Native, African and European groups.) The oxtail, served with plantains, rice and beans, cabbage and potato or a garden salad, is delicious. For dessert, try the homemade ice cream in flavors like craboo and soursop.
14008 Crenshaw Blvd., Gardena. 310-323-5000, marscaribbean.com.
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