Tasting Jamaican at Back A Yard and Miss Ollie's
APPETITE Although I'm not an island girl, I crave sorrel — that cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple juice made from the petals of a sorrel plant — or multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers, both common in the Caribbean and ideal together, the sorrel cooling off the pepper's scorching heat. One of my closest friends is Jamaican and we've been exploring local Caribbean food for years, despite the lack of abundant local options.
We were saddened to lose Penny's Caribbean Cafe, a tiny Berkeley dive with excellent Trinidadian home cooking, when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago, I've trekked to San Leandro for festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) and curry goat at Sweet Fingers, savored the more Americanized food at Primo Patio Cafe tucked away in SF's SoMa (the sunny patio is lovely), dined at the now-defunct popup Kingston 11 in Berkeley, and appreciated Sarah Kirnon's inventive Caribbean fusion (Jerk Cornish hen!) from her days as chef at Oakland's Hibiscus.
Caribbean foods can also be found at Oakland grocers like Minto Jamaican Market and Man Must Wak where you can stock up on authentic ginger beers and Ting (beloved Jamaican grapefruit soda). I'm curious about San Francisco-based caterer Lehi Cooks Jamaica.
But thanks to my dear friend and her family who get their Jamaican food fix at this tiny haven, I've found my favorite Caribbean outpost in the most surprising of locales: Menlo Park.
BACK A YARD
With squeaky front porch door and perpetual line out the door, the closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals' favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term "back a yard" refers to the way things are done back home, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.
Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, I down a Ting which cools off the effects of the tender curry goat special ($12.75, Thursday-Saturday only). Generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad, and coconut-laced rice 'n beans, different from New Orleans' version but equally moist and cheering. Another fabulous side dish consists of warm, honey-sweet festivals, a doughnut-meets-cornbread fried pastry. Jerk chicken ($9.50) appropriately shines, although jerk tofu ($8.95) likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones amidst silky texture. Friday's special is escoveitch (the Carribean version of escabeche, or fish marinated in a hearty vinegar sauce): it was snapper on a Friday I visited. Choose a grilled fillet ($12.75) or whole fish (market price), head and eyeballs intact, not so much an immaculate fish dish as Caribbean comfort food, recalling days I'd polish off a whole grilled fish in the countryside of Vietnam.
Jamaica's national dish, saltfish and ackee, is a must, served here only on Saturdays ($14.50). Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit related to the lychee. This version shines compared to others I've had, confirmed by my friend as authentically reminiscent of the saltfish and ackee she grew up with in Jamaica. Dessert ($3.25) is the one letdown, whether a blandly cold sweet potato pudding or key lime pie lacking the tart oomph I crave in what is one of my favorites. Nonetheless, this hole-in-the-wall is a treasure bringing heartfelt Caribbean cooking to South Bay folk... and worth a trek for hardcore foodies.
1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park, 650-323-4244 (also 80 N. Market, San Jose, 408-294-8626), www.backayard.net