Eating Roadside In Jamaica

Jamaica is home to many fine restaurants and renowned chefs, but my very favorite way to eat is at one of the many roadside stands and small shack restaurants found all over the island.

One of my very favorites is Dickie's Best Kept Secret, a decrepitly charming cliff-side shack built around trees and literally hanging out over blue-green waters where fishermen paddle in from the reef in their wooden dugout canoes to sell their fresh-caught fish.

Dickie's is famous among epicures, but "secret" is still not too strong a word to use, since it's almost impossible to find even if you're looking for it. Dickie, a charming, bearded older man, refuses to mark his restaurant with a sign; luckily, you have us. You have to look carefully for it less than one kilometer west of Port Antonio on the A4, and you must call ahead or else he doesn't cook. The day we went, we were the only diners. You clamber down from the entrance; the floors literally slant down toward the waters and the décor is a wild and wonderful mélange of shabby chic with bright colors. But we were seated right next to a propped-open shuttered window and the view was superb. Plus, a sample bottle of local rum sat waiting for us amidst the eclectic but very clean array of china and silver.

He started us off with a plate of local mangoes, so sweet and tender they almost melted in our mouths, followed by a chicken soup flavored with fresh thyme and scallions, stronger and more flavorful than stateside ones. Next came a coconut-crusted fish filet, accompanied with gunga beans (pigeon peas) and rice. After a rest, we dived into a fluffy bread pudding with golden raisins and fresh ground nutmeg. Call ahead for reservations at 876-809-6276.

If you happen to be driving between Ocho Rios and Kingston, there are at least 30 roadside food stands at Faith's Pen in St. Ann Parish where you can try fried yams, ackee (a distant relative of the lychee) and saltfish, roast corn, and jerk chicken; you can also buy local honey and root wines. I brought back a large bottle of dark honey, which I drizzle over everything from pancakes to Brussels sprouts.

In Negril, where it is said no hotel can be built higher than the tallest palm tree, local food predominates more than fancy resort restaurants. One of everyone's favorites is the vegetarian Ras Rody's Roadside Organic Food, where local produce is bought fresh every day and the conversation is as lively as the food. Try their pumpkin stew and festival bread and be sure to wash it down with a Ting, the tart and locally made grapefruit soda.

If you're in the Montego Bay area, try Scotchies near Rose Hall for searing hot jerk chicken. In St. Elizabeth in Middle Quarters is Billy's Grassy Park, serving spicy pepper shrimp, crunchy fried shrimp, rice and peas, and peanut porridge.

And if you're truly lucky and you find yourself floating on a bamboo raft down the Rio Grande River near Port Antonio, you can swim up to a riverside stand halfway down the river where a woman carries in fresh fruit and vegetables and stews over a four-mile dirt path, then gets them "coming up" over her riverside fire. The day we floated by we ate spicy chicken curry, fried plantains, and a pepperpot soup. Delicious!