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3633 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Chef-owner Esther Mbaikambey delivered a lightening bolt to the West Valley last November when she opened her authentic Afro-Caribbean eatery named after a traditional African sticky dough made from starchy cassava-root flour. The outwardly nondescript joint celebrates the vibrant cuisine of her native Nigeria and Jamaica between its mango-hued walls. As for the food, Mbaikambey’s got your goat, mon, and it’s so delicious you’ll wonder why Americans don’t eat more of it. Try goat bundled in cassava leaves stuffed with beef, dried smoked fish and peanuts. Yassa chicken may come from Senegal, but it is international comfort food when marinated and deep fried, set atop sautéed onions, bell peppers and rice, and served with a side of black eyed peas. You won’t be able to stop spooning up dumpling soup – bobbing with carrots, onions, tomatoes, corn and plump dumplings – until every last drop of beef and chicken broth is gone. For a sweet finish, the sugar pie hits the spot, or try the pof-pofs – dense, deep-fried flour dumplings rich with sugar and butter.
Ocean Blue Caribbean Restaurant and Bar
6140 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler
Bright green and yellow walls with a palapa-topped bar set the island mood for this colorful hideaway that offers live music alongside down-home dishes such as Jamaica’s national dish of ackee and saltfish (boiled fruit sautéed with fish, onions, tomatoes and fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers). Loosen your belt for large portions and ready your taste buds for well-seasoned staples like brown stewed chicken, curry goat, and jerk chicken marinated with a seriously pungent mélange of more than 30 spices. Don’t overlook sides such as savory rice and beans, fried plantains, yam-banana dumplings, or festivals – light, pop-in-your-mouth cornmeal fritters with a touch of sweet in their golden crust. While the setting is laid-back, the kitchen knows its way around fancier plates, too, including an excellent coconut curry shrimp and scallops with fried plantains and festivals, and it keeps things even more interesting with specials like pigtail and beef stew. If you’ve never had Irish moss before – and chances are good you haven’t had it anywhere in the Valley – try it here. The tropical seaweed is made into a sweet milk drink that’s said to be a natural aphrodisiac.
Jerk Hut Jamaican Grille
4115 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix
Last December, a tropical breeze blew into Phoenix with the opening of this casual eatery dressed in lemon yellow brick walls and a huge “Jerk Hut” sign blazing in its window. People don’t come for the order-at-the-counter ambiance, or relaxed presentations like fish served still in its tin foil wrapping and rice in paper baskets, but bright orange decor and an open kitchen adds a cheerful note to every meal. The short menu brims with spicy and full-flavored treats like jerk chicken, curry goat, ox tails and stew peas, and classic beef patty pies, all washed down with Jamaican sodas. Daily specials like red snapper, fricassee chicken, curry fish with rice and peas, or you-gotta-try-it chicken back and foot soup (the cartilage adds deep flavor to the broth) bring extra incentive to visit often. Fried plantains may suffice for folks wanting a touch of sweetness, but desserts are worth lingering over, including carrot cake or bread pudding crowned with ice cream. And here’s a tip: Call ahead for an entire jerk chicken to-go, and get off-menu sides of gungu (pigeon) pea rice and fresh-baked coco bread, too.
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