I like to think that I’m pretty well-versed on many different cuisines, but one style of food that I’ve never really had the opportunity to get to know and love much is Caribbean food. I’ve made beef patties a couple of times, thanks to a Jamaican friend giving me her family recipe, but that’s pretty much it. Recently we ventured out to Island Vibes Restaurant on Cleveland Avenue. While we were working in the neighborhood, my friend Easy suggested stopping at this “diamond in the north-side rough” eatery, because he recently heard The Big Bass Brothers give it a good rating. Now, I am a big fan of the BBB reviews, so I was all for stopping to check it out.
Located in a small, colorful, corner building, Island Vibes puts itself right out there on the street, with a big sign full of colorful images of their foods to entice passersby to stop in and try some.
The interior of the shop is not much to look at – a mere few dozen square feet of space highlighted by a single, framed Bob Marley poster, and a walk-up counter. It was pretty obvious that the majority of their business is take-out and catering. There was one high-top table with two chars, and a small counter with four bar stools for seating. Located on the near wall was a small cooler filled with homemade desserts, and straight ahead was the order window, and the kitchen beyond that. There’s also a grill out back, which we passed on the way in, that had a heavenly aroma of grilled meat and jerk seasoning permeating the air. When we arrived, we found Leone Robinson, who owns the restaurant with her husband Courtney, cooking and singing her heart out to a good, old-fashioned gospel hymn.
Leone is an incredibly friendly person to talk to. She welcomed us and made us feel that she valued our patronage right from the start. She graciously took the time to describe some of her dishes to us; she told us how some of her homemade recipes were cooked and prepared, and even offered samples. While talking with her, we did find out that a lot of her business comes from the catering side of things. She told us that several local colleges and universities, large businesses, Reggae music concerts and festivals, and even Mayor Coleman’s office asks her to cater events on a regular basis. She said that she knows her restaurant could thrive in a bigger space and a more attractive neighborhood, but she told me she wants to keep things small for now and always wants to retain that hometown feel. I totally get it.
Their small(ish) menu offers several traditional, Caribbean meat platters with your choice of 1, 2, or 3 sides. They also have other options such as fried & jerk chicken wings, fried tilapia, beef patties, soups and more…
We started our meal with a Jamaican Beef Patty ($2.00). We were advised that the patties were pre-made, but not pre-baked like many Caribbean restaurants use. They were hot and flaky, and the meat filling was well seasoned. Beef patties are great for appetizers or as an introduction for someone who may not be familiar with Caribbean food.
Easy ordered the Jerk Chicken platter w/ 2 sides ($8.00). The generous portion of chicken was the equivalent of a breast and a thigh (I believe). Island Vibes has a simple set-up out behind the store, where they grill their chicken on a regular, backyard-style grill, giving it that desired charred flavor and appearance. Easy gave me a piece of the breast to try, and it was succulent and juicy. The jerk was very prevalent but the heat didn’t overpower the flavor of the meat, which was nice. Leone suggested the beans & rice and the cabbage as sides, and said those were the two most popular choices, by far. Both of our meals were so huge that we couldn’t finish them.
I ordered the Oxtail platter w/ 2 sides ($8.00), and also opted for the beans & rice and cabbage as my sides. I had eaten oxtail once before, several years ago when I lived outside of Philly, but Leone’s oxtail was much more flavorful and savory than what my previous experience had been. It was very similar in taste to a very tender, very well-seasoned beef roast. It was cooked with diced carrots and potatoes, and served with a couple of spoonfuls of a rich, brown, gravy-like sauce over it. The beans and rice were good, and really filling. And I must say that Leone’s cabbage was the best cooked cabbage I have ever had in my life. It was AMAZING! It had a perfect blend of seasonings, with peas, green beans, and corn. Easy and I both talked about how delicious the cabbage was for the remainder of the day.
After our meal, Leone gave me a complimentary sampler box filled with some of the other meats and specialties she cooks. All of them were really flavorful and delicious. Starting at the top of the photo and going clockwise were: Pepper steak, Curry chicken, Curry goat and Brown stew chicken.
All in all, we were both extremely impressed with the food that Island Vibes was kicking out, and the friendliness of the owners. In fact, we’re planning to stop in again next time we’re in the area. If you’re looking to try something unique, don’t let the stereotype of the neighborhood keep you away from this place. If you are a lover of Jamaican or Caribbean foods, you will find this spot about as authentic as it gets. If you’re new to this type of cuisine, Leone is more than happy to share her knowledge and love of the food she cooks with you. If you stop in, just keep in mind that they are cash only.