by Hannah Dahl
Tasty tacos aren’t very hard to find in Tucson. But finding a plate of sweet, fried plantains? I figured it would be about as likely as finding beachfront property in the dusty Sonoran Desert. But as it turns out, I was wrong.
My love for plantains stands unmatched. I would freeclimb the Andes and navigate down the Amazon for the sweet, starchy fruit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. A quick Google search revealed there were plantains aplenty to be eaten, all within a 15-minute drive of UA.
Despite national acclaim for its mouthwatering Mexican dishes, Tucson is quietly fostering another ethnic cuisine, arguably just as rich in tear-inducing spices and local ingredients as its Hispanic counterpart. Three Caribbean restaurants have set up shop in Tucson during the last 15 years offer residents a little variety in their diets, trading carne asada for curry goat and raspados for rum cake.
Though the restaurant owners each brought their favorite island foods to this landlocked city for different reasons, they all share one thing – a love for Caribbean cuisine and the role it plays in their culture.
Island roots grow deep
“Fresh Scotch bonnet peppers, that’s what I miss most about living in Jamaica,” says Deon Harrison, owner of CeeDee Jamaican Kitchen.
Canary yellow bottles of Carib’s Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce dot the tables and complement the bright green and rasta red walls of CeeDee, Tucson’s oldest Caribbean restaurant. It opened in 2005 and serves “strictly Jamaican” food, Harrison says.
Growing up in a farming region in Jamaica, Harrison was used to fresh Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme and other herbs grown in his garden. Now, bottles of the potent pepper sauce must be imported from New York, Harrison says.
Harrison and his wife made the trek from New York when a friend suggested they bring their island cooking to Tucson. Now they cater parties, make appearances at Tucson Meet Yourself and host karaoke nights.
Harrison started cooking when he was 15, building on what he learned from his grandparents.
“In Jamaica, you eat three meals,” Harrison says. “If you get hungry in between, you have to fix something for yourself.”
According to Harrison, his wife persuaded him to master the art of cooking. They create dishes at the restaurant, serving Jamaican favorites like spicy jerk chicken, curry goat, stew beef, and sorrel, a cool, vermillion-hued hibiscus drink.
Duane Hall, owner of D’s Island Grill JA, wasn’t about to give up eating the food he loved when he left the islands.
“When I came to Tucson, I wanted Jamaican food, but there was nowhere to get it,” Hall says.
Like Harrison, Hall is a Jamaican native. He came to Tucson in 2001 and began cooking his favorite Caribbean dishes in his backyard. “Soon, my friends started bringing things for me to cook,” Hall says.
That tradition of food and friendship continues. When Hall’s friends travel to Jamaica, he asks them to return with ingredients that are not found in Tucson.
Hall left a job at Eegee’s to work as a chef at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, and credits much of his success as a restauranteur to the culinary skills and experience he gained there. However, he never forgot his first teacher in the kitchen – his mother. “But she can’t touch me now,” Hall says with a laugh.
Hall and his father run the small restaurant, where Hall cooks everything made to order. His menu touts Mexican-Caribbean combos like jerk tequila-glazed shrimp and quesadillas with jerk sauce.
“It sounds cliché, but everything (on the menu) is good, because everything we make is made with love,” Hall said.
From beachfront to barrio
Nearly every Caribbean island boasts its distinctive national dish, from fungee and fish (boiled cornmeal and saltfish) in the Virgin Islands to Jamaica’s popular jerk chicken, says Dexter Joseph, co-owner of Desert Island Eatery.
“I think for me it’s a matter of entitlement, like this (dish) belongs to this island,” says Jamillia Joseph, co-owner of Desert Island Eatery. “People take pride in that.”
Caribbean cuisine is a fusion of cultures, including African, Asian, Creole, American and French. Many of the islands were occupied by slaves from Africa, who created meals that mixed their their owners’ leftovers with their home countries’ traditional spices.
The connection between each island’s cuisine and culture is strong. Dexter’s eyes light up as he describes childhood memories of waking up early in the Virgin Islands to listen for the sound of birds flocking to the sugar apple trees.
“Once (the birds) are in that tree and they’re rustling around, you get there ’cause you know it’s a ripe sugar apple,” Dexter says. “The birds know before you could ever know, unless you go up there and squeeze all the fruits.”
Just ripe, sweet sugar apples are one of the many local island foods Dexter misses. His and Jamillia’s families come from Antigua, the Virgin Islands and Nevis, which has influenced their dishes.
The restaurant caters to vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians and carnivores. The menu features plant-based twists on Caribbean recipes, such as jerk barbecue tofu and curry chickpeas and potatoes.
The husband-and-wife team are also creating fusion foods for Tucson’s palate, pairing jerk chicken with the familiar taco, or rice and peas wrapped snugly in a flour tortilla.
“If we see something bland and everyone likes it, we try to spice it up and make it better,” Dexter says.
CeeDee Jamaican Kitchen
5305 E. Speedway Boulevard
D’s Island Grill
3156 E. Fort Lowell Road
Desert Island Eatery
2513 N. Campbell Avenue