Look behind the Burger King for island classics, a hearty stew and greens that are actually refreshing

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

Ackee and salted codfish with a vegetable stir fry and rice and beans

Ackee and salted codfish with a vegetable stir fry and rice and beans

I think of myself as pretty observant, especially when it comes to restaurant openings. My friends are used to me pleading for them to pull to the side of the road because I’ve noticed a grand opening sign, and they’ve become resigned to the idea that I have to see the menu before going any further.

Even so, sometimes I’m excited to discover a new restaurant only to find that it has been there for years.

That happened recently at the corner of La Tijera Boulevard and Centinela Avenue. I was walking to the parking lot at Pann’s and happened to be at an angle where I could see the sign for Derrick’s Jamaican Cuisine & Catering  across the street. I have an excuse for not noticing the place before, as it’s hidden behind a Burger King on an intersection with odd geometry — if you’re rubbernecking business signs here, you’re likely to rear-end another car.

My first impression was surprise. The big interior is beautifully and colorfully decorated with fake trees and greenery, original and reproduction art, and figurines of African animals. Zebras and giraffes have never roamed the forested hills of Jamaica, but the critters add a touch of whimsy.

For the most part the menu covers Jamaican classics, with some lunch specials featuring smaller portions and a dinner menu that is available all the time. The service here is friendly but Caribbean-slow, so a little nibble to hold you until the main course is a good idea.

We tried the beef and chicken stuffed Jamaican patties from the small appetizer section. (The name is misleading — they’re actually wide, flat turnovers or hand pies.) The version stuffed with curried chicken was a bit more interesting than the mildly spiced minced beef, and if you have a party of four you should get two and split them so everybody gets a taste.

For our mains we ordered three classic items — jerk chicken, brown stew chicken, and ackee with saltfish — plus a signature item, the turkey dog.

Restaurant owner Derrick Angus splits his time between Houston and California, and the turkey dog shows that he picks up ideas; it’s a Texas hot link with a little Caribbean twist. It didn’t have the greasiness of a Texas link, which can be good or bad depending on whether you prefer the fatty richness of the original. The sausage was served in a bun topped with very lightly sautéed onions and peppers, and though the bun was unexpectedly chewy, this was a nice light meal.

The jerk chicken was not as fiery as I’ve had elsewhere, but the tender, juicy meat did have a pleasant kick of allspice, ginger, garlic and red pepper. The lunch portion included a leg and thigh plus two sides and was an ample meal, though messy due to the liberal coating of sauce. Keep those napkins ready, because you’ll use them.

Jamaican food has a well-deserved reputation for spiciness, but brown stew is one of the exceptions. There’s some warmth in the tomato, soy and garlic based stew with onions and bell pepper, but it’s not hot. It’s rich and complex with hints of sweetness, thyme and smoked paprika, and it will change your expectations of Jamaican cuisine.

The ackee and salted codfish may also be a learning experience, since the combination of salty and fruity flavors with fish is more what you’d expect from Southeast Asia than the Caribbean. Salted codfish was staple food for sailors, and the Jamaicans added ackee, a fruit native to West Africa but imported to the New World in the 1700s.

Ackee tastes something like a mild lychee — not particularly impressive by itself, but when mixed with the salted fish it’s delightful. It’s also toxic when eaten unripe or improperly cooked, so this is one dish I will not be replicating at home. I now know where to go when I want it.

Each dinner comes with two sides and festival bread, a kind of fried sweet cornbread. I’m not a fan of festival bread but found the sides to be excellent (a vegetarian could have a fine meal by getting a few).

The garlic fried potatoes and rice and beans were standard items well made, as was the sautéed shredded cabbage with carrots and broccoli. The surprise was the “healing greens,” which were prepared in a way that removed all but a hint of the bitterness from the greens and left bright, fresh flavors. I’m a fan of greens in most forms, and these were the best I’ve had in recent memory.

Beer and wine are served, as are a sweet punch, fresh sorrel iced tea and ginger-pineapple drink. The sorrel is made with hibiscus flower and is the same as the Mexican drink known as Jamaica, and it’s a great companion to the spiciness of Jamaican food. I tried the pineapple-ginger too and was surprised because this is often made with a heavy ginger kick, but there was a good balance of spiciness and tart citrus.

Lunch or dinner at Derrick’s is very reasonable, with several midday options below $10 and most full dinners below $20. It’s a great deal for good food served in very pleasant surroundings. When you come back outside the view will still be of the back of the Burger King, but for just a moment you will be able to imagine a beach and the sound of reggae in the distance.

Derrick’s Jamaican Cuisine & Catering 6806 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester (310) 641-7572 derricksjamaican.com