By Brett Callwood
If you’re not looking for it as you’re cruising along Crenshaw, you could easily miss the Island Reggae Kitchen. Located deep in a mini strip mall that doesn’t look like you’d just venture in without reason, the place is something of a hidden, unpolished jewel.
But sometimes those hidden jewels are the most valuable and, certainly in this case, the most exotic. The Island Reggae Kitchen serves Caribbean food in a diner-like environment. No frills, no nonsense, just good eats.
The staff were chatty in an awesomely gruff sort of way. Not exactly warm, but not unwelcoming either. It all felt like part of the experience, and that was more than fine. We soon discovered that some of the items need to be ordered well in advance, such as the Brown Fish Stew. Call up at least 30 minutes before going in, if you want that dish.
So instead, we went for the chicken stew dinner, which is served with a dumpling, rice and beans, plantain, and mac & cheese. The latter is optional – you could go for cabbage – but we were feeling decadent that day.
The chicken is awesome. The spicy stew sauce has a lovely bite but isn’t palette-destroying. Obviously heat levels are always going to be subjective, but for us it was just spicy enough. But besides the heat, the sauce was rich and hearty. This isn’t a stew in the traditional American sense – like a very thick, meaty soup. Rather, this is pieces of chicken on the bone, cooked in the sauce. The meat is moist and falling off the bone, and the whole thing is delicious.
The rice and beans, a Caribbean staple, is fluffy and tasty, and it soaks up the aforementioned sauce perfectly. The one dumpling served with the meal is bready and dense, with a crispy outer shell. They’re not huge but one is plenty because it’s so heavy but so good.
The mac & cheese is fairly standard mac & cheese, but it works with all of the other elements in the meal – it’s extremely cheesy and a welcome addition to the plate. The plantain is cooked plain – so syrupy coating – but it’s sweet enough anyway. Agai, the combination of elements make the dish come together.
We also got a veggie patty – a Jamaican pie in a half-moon shape, which is generally coated in turmeric to give it an orange tinge. The vivid green cabbage filling is perfectly seasoned, contrasting beautifully with the flaky pastry. The restaurant also serves chicken and beef patties.
Caribbean food in Gardena is something a little bit different, and it made for a welcome change.
Island Reggae Kitchen is located at 14426 Crenshaw Blvd., Gardena 90249. Call 310-515-6869.