You can taste a country’s history in the cuisine, and Jamaican food — from jerk chicken to curry shrimp to rum cake — is definitely a dense history lesson. The population developed from a mix of indigenous people, Spanish and English colonizers, slaves brought from West Africa, and Chinese and Indian indentured laborers, and they all played a part in shaping Jamaica’s traditional foods.
Beef patties are reminiscent of pasties and empanadas, and escovitch of Spanish escabeche. Jamaican curries feature Indian spices and are often served with roti bread. Steamed callaloo has roots in West African dishes. Jamaica’s national fruit, ackee, is believed to have first entered Jamaica on a slave boat.
Los Angeles doesn’t have a “Little Jamaica” or Caribbean corridor in which the region’s restaurants are concentrated, so we scoured the city in search of the best Jamaican food and found these gems scattered across neighborhoods including Inglewood, Leimert Park, North Hollywood and Mid-City.
Sit down to a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs oxtail stew or a plate of greens and fish, and savor the flavors of Jamaica.
Most Americans are familiar with beef patties, but in Jamaica it’s common to eat those patties inside a coco bread bun, like a sandwich. The coco bread and patties at Coley’s are made fresh each daily, and you can taste it. Coco bread is a soft, white, spongy bread that usually has some coconut milk in it. If putting bread around a patty that already has a crust seems counterintuitive, you might be surprised how completely right the result can be. The entrée meats are tender, although the sauces and seasoning aren’t standouts. But it’s really the sides and beverages that steal the show. In some restaurants, festival bread and plantains are overcooked afterthoughts, but here the sweet festival bread has fluffy fried dough with a satisfying crunchy exterior, and the plantains are soft but not mushy. Try the fresh sorrel juice to wash down your starchy feast. 10842 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 761-4944; coleyscuisine.com.
Wi Jammin Restaurant
This neighborhood favorite has been open for 17 years and has spawned a small market and a café of the same name around the corner. (The café is run by the owner’s son and focuses more on Americanized breakfasts like Cap ‘N Crunch French toast and fusion dishes like jerk tacos.) The jerk chicken is nicely grilled, but be prepared to contend with small pieces of bone in the mix. The restaurant does a brisk take-out business, but there are several tables too. One popular item here is Jamaica’s national dish and traditional breakfast, ackee and saltfish. The flesh of the ackee fruit is boiled, seasoned and mixed with salted cod. Cooked ackee looks like scrambled eggs and tastes a little like hearts of palm or creamy turnips, with a wonderful, buttery flavor and texture. (If you want to try ackee but aren’t up for the $25 price tag for the dish here, you can pick up a large can of ackee at the Wi Jammin market for about $13.) Several of the other main dishes here are available as side orders, so you can get a sizable portion of meat without the rice and peas or sides for about half the price. 5103 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; (323) 965-9809; wijamminrestaurant.com.
Front Page Jamaican Grille
Many visitors stop by this tiny eatery because it's near LAX, although it's popular with locals as well. The extensive jerk options include chicken, pork, goat and sometimes chicken feet. The meats are a salty, tender indulgence, particularly the oxtails. The fish dishes here require planning ahead, since seafood orders must be placed 45 minutes in advance. The house-made hot sauce might be the biggest draw. This fresh and spicy Scotch bonnet and habanero blend is available for purchase by the bottle too. 1117 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood; (310) 216-9521; frontpagejamaicangrille.com.
At the beautiful, 1920s planned community of Leimert Park in south L.A., a vibrant center for African-American arts and culture, you’ll find Ackee Bamboo. The restaurant is in Leimert Park Plaza, which is also home to the newly opened (and fantastic) Papillion Art Gallery. The space is simple but sweet, with pea green walls that don’t quite match the marbled green tables. Portions are large, with festival bread and plump plantains on the side. For an upcharge, you can substitute the steamed mixed vegetable with callaloo, amaranth greens from Jamaica similar to collard greens. Fresh juices, like the popular pineapple-ginger drink, complement the meal. 4305 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park; (323) 295-0043; ackeebamboojacuisine.com.
Derrick’s Jamaican Cuisine
Although many Jamaican dishes are healthy, there’s no denying there’s also a prevalence of salt, rich meats and starch. At Derrick’s, the menu includes a report of heart disease and obesity statistics among African-Americans and the benefit of healthier takes on traditional Jamaican meals. The “healing greens” side here is gently sautéed kale, the jerk options have a nice spice level (the heat accumulates), and in addition to the usual favorites like oxtails and brown stew there are plenty of vegetarian and salad options too. 6806 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester; (310) 641-7572; derricksjamaican.com.
Natraliart Restaurant and Market
This long-standing Jamaican classic servers harder-to-find traditional dishes like fish tea soup and mannish water (goat organ soup). They also make a buttery Ital stew, the Rastafarian veggie dish that is made without salt or meat (the name comes from “vital”). The owner, who goes by Jucy because of his juicing passion, also offers a long list of fresh beverages including a creamy carrot juice made with milk and subtle spices. 3426 W. Washington Blvd., Arlington Heights; (323) 732-8865.
Lee’s Caribbean Restaurant
In a quiet strip mall in Inglewood, Lee's is brightly lit and has a few tables and stools (though most orders are carry-out) and a wall of shelves featuring Jamaican pantry wares such as festival bread mix and browning essence. The Jamaican rum cake here is made by the owner’s wife, and it is exceptional – moist and intoxicating, spicy and dark. They often feature cow’s foot on the menu, a velvety, beefy mess rich with bone marrow. If the gelatinous texture is too much for you to finish a whole plate, use the leftovers in a soup to get an amazingly rich broth or just order the cow's foot soup. 1041 Prairie Ave., Inglewood; (310) 419-6550.
At 67th and Crenshaw, you might pass this small corner store and never know it is a market and carry-out restaurant. One of the signs in the tiny parking lot says Stone’s Automotive. There is a CD and DVD section outside. But inside there are assorted Jamaican groceries, and there’s another small building behind the store where you can order the basics, like jerk chicken, oxtails and beef patties. The food is straightforward and the portions are large, but maybe the most fun part of a visit to Stone’s is checking out the market items, like Jamaican Tastee cheese and sweet potato pies. For Jamaican ex-pats looking for tastes of home, Stone’s is worth a visit. 6700 Crenshaw Blvd., Hyde Park; (323) 751-5526.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included Kaboom Jamaican Flavor, which is currently closed. The owners say they are seeking a new space.