With many vacations canceled amid COVID-19 concerns, you can at least offer your taste buds a getaway
“So many restaurants, so little time” is a popular phrase that rang true until the coronavirus pandemic abruptly froze businesses and left people with little else to do. One positive outcome of these long, uneasy days apparently tumbling into a momentous summer is that I had the time to finally try the lovable Jamaican food from humble Island Vibes Restaurant.
Island Vibes — which serves hefty portions of value-priced, homestyle fare — opened in South Linden in 2009. The mom-and-pop operation shot onto my radar a couple of years later when a friend recommended it. But the eatery is minute and lacks a dining room, so Island Vibes didn’t top my should-review-soon list until recent events made deserving local restaurants geared for takeout an especially compelling draw.
Patrons are strongly advised to phone in their orders. Upon arrival, they can expect to assume their place in a line on a sidewalk (only three visitors are currently allowed inside the eatery at a time) where blue tape “Xs” mark the socially distant spots. Customers can also expect the restaurant’s unlovely exterior to give way to a bright and colorful interior whose theme could be called “celebrate Jamaica.”Get new dining reviews delivered to your inbox every Monday: Sign up for our daily newsletter
A handful of entrees are offered in multiple sizes: small is served with a generous side ($6-7), while medium (most are $8) and large (most are $10) come with two big sides. Note: Entree prices provided hereafter are for large servings, which can easily feed two; and, like other restaurants of its ilk, Island Vibes is an idiosyncratic shop that offers “until it’s gone” items.
So how is the Jerk Chicken ($12)? The most famous Jamaican dish is good here, but I wouldn’t rate it higher than any of the succulent stews I tried (which I’ll get to).
Flavored more by charcoal smoke than its mild but fragrant herb-and-spice blend, my jerk chicken had appealingly crinkly skin and good-tasting meat that was a bit overcooked. Like other proteins at Island Vibes, the bird arrived rustically hacked into easily shareable pieces replete with bones.
Chicken is drenched in a light, mildly tart sauce slightly sweetened by brown sugar and sauteed onions and peppers in the highly recommended Brown Stew ($10). The fall-off-the-bone meat and terrific sauce make this an inhalable dish to eat with a spoon.
I liked the slightly smoky Curry Goat even more ($16). It was an enormous load of tender stew meat in an easy-to-love curry gravy with a sneaky, cumulative chile heat.
Tilapia ($11.50) isn’t high on my list of desirable fish to eat, so it speaks to the inspired treatment it received that I happily finished a large portion of it. Three fillets were skillfully pan-fried and flavored with a zesty, escovitch-style sauce with pickled veggies.
I might’ve saved the best entree for last: Oxtail ($16). If you’re new to this dish, don’t let its name — or many round bones — deter you from enjoying a delicious beef stew starring unctuous, tender meat that tastes like intense brisket. Butter beans lend extra depth to the hearty-yet-zippy entree.
About 10 sides are offered, and they range from pretty good to “I’ll be craving this again soon.” I especially liked the (in more or less descending order): naturally sweet, parsley-flecked and peppery steamed cabbage with carrots, peas and onions; surprisingly spicy curried potatoes; flawless cornbread; scratch-cooked green beans supplemented with long-cooked veggies; and macaroni & cheese — big shells with a tangy, neon-orange-colored sauce.
The rib-sticking, if clumpy, rice and peas (the “peas” are actually beans) and the dense and heavy house-made dumplings are best used to sop up stew juices. While not among my favorite items here, like everything else I tried, they reverberate with the soulful vibes of honest, homestyle cooking.