The food of Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands isn't as well represented hereabouts as one might like; the cuisine's practitioners tend to migrate to the Eastern Seaboard, not the Bay Area. This is unfortunate for locals hankering after the lusty flavors of chayote, cassava, allspice, callaloo, pigeon peas, Scotch bonnet peppers and jerk, and the myriad pleasures of curried goat, salt cod and ackee, brown fish stew, escovitch snapper, and plantains fried to a golden brown. Happily, Clive Barnes, a skilled chef out of Kingston, headed west after a stint in New York and opened his own Jamaican restaurant, Sweet Fingers, in Sacramento in 2003. Last year he opened a second Sweet Fingers in the East Bay, and the rum punch and ginger beer have flowed ever since.
It's located along a stretch of downtown San Leandro that belies the city's outdated reputation as an intolerant Oakland suburb. Taquerias and a supermercado brimming with maiz and nopales are a block north; beauty salons, auto repair shops, a pawnbroker, and a retro burger drive-through add proletariat élan to the tree-lined, stucco-fronted neighborhood. From the outside, Sweet Fingers itself looks like a windowless, plaster-boulder saloon out of the mid-tiki era, and inside it's dominated by a bar that takes up one wall of the dining room, with a few rickety tables scattered here and there. This isn't a bar that happens to serve food, however; it's a really good Jamaican restaurant that happens to have a liquor license.
We began with Jamaican patties, a ubiquitous street snack that is to the old country what burritos are to the Bay Area. Similar in construction to Cornish pasties (Britain colonized the island for three centuries), these turnovers are filled with a spicier blend of meat and seasonings and are traditionally tinted a deep turmeric yellow. Sweet Fingers' rendition is hit or miss; on one visit the pastry was light and flaky and enclosed a sultry, yummy ground-beef filling; on another the casing was on the tough side, while the innards — a mixed-vegetable goulash in one, chicken meat in another — were merely serviceable. The jerk chicken appetizer, however, is consistently delicious. Perhaps the island's oldest delicacy — it dates back to the days when the native Taínos preserved their meat in peppers, allspice, and salt — these dry-rubbed chicken strips are moist and tender with an afterbuzz of errant heat, and come with a dark, smoky sauce for dipping.
Another chicken dish, the Jamaica Me Crazy entrée, is even better. Half a bird is stewed in that subtly smoky-peppery, garlic-laced brown sauce that's a hallmark of Jamaican cooking; the flavors work their way into every savory morsel until the meat falls from the bone. Escovitch-style fish, another Jamaican specialty, dates back to the island's 17th-century Spanish colonial days. Here, fresh snapper is sautéed in coconut oil and draped with a rich, nutty marinade reminiscent of a good sate ajam; the result is a delicate, flaky filet sumptuously enveloped in cream and spice, with perfectly al dente carrots and broccoli providing crisp contrast. The shrimp curry, however, is a disappointment, with prawns and an array of vegetables presented in a pedestrian, zest-free gravy more akin to second-string chop suey than coriander or fenugreek or Jamaica's multicultural culinary traditions.
In accordance with the island's largely meat-free diet, there are few cloven-hooved options on the menu, but at least two of them are winners. Curry goat, an island specialty of long standing, gets a triumphant rendition here, the luscious, hearty meat stewed until fork-tender; chunks of creamy, peppery carrots; and tomatoes nestled alongside. And the braised oxtail is superb: rich and buttery yet robust in flavor, it's served in a spice-infused roux similar to a chocolate-edged mole negra. All entrées come with bland rice and beans and wonderfully silky, not-too-starchy fried plantains — a perfect, barely sweet foil for the spicy food.
Only one item from the restaurant's tempting dessert menu was available over the course of two visits, but the navy bean pie (prepared offsite) is worth ordering. Rich and smooth as flan or cheesecake, the mashed, sweetened beans have a subtle honey-molasses flavor that's ideally showcased in a tender, flaky crust. It's especially tasty with a steaming cup of Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica, one of the world's finest blends.
Other sipping options include a bare wine list (one chardonnay, one merlot, one zinfandel), four kinds of beer (Jamaica's Red Stripe among them), and an array of tropical cocktails (plus house concoctions like the Farewell, a cool, refreshing blend of rum, orange juice, strawberries, and pineapple). Opt for the house-brewed ginger beer, an eye-opening elixir with all the sweet heat of freshly grated ginger root, or a tall, cool glass of liquefied Jamaican sorrel, aka roselle, a variety of hibiscus with a pleasantly tart cranberry-pomegranate flavor.
Sweet Fingers acknowledges the vegetarian inclinations of Jamaica's Rastafari with a wide selection of flesh-free options. Rasta Salad (veggies and tropical fruit) makes a bountiful appetizer; the establishment's delectable jerk cookery can be enjoyed in the form of jerk vegetables or jerk tofu. (Curried vegetables and curried tofu are available as well.) Or opt for tofu draped in that garlicky brown sauce; a mixed-vegetable stew; sautéed veggies with coconut; stewed Jamaican peas; or vegetables cooked with ackee, the odd-looking African fruit that tastes of scrambled eggs and has become a beloved Jamaican staple. Veggie burgers and tofu sandwiches are available at lunchtime.
At nighttime the lively bar hosts wholesale sipping, chitchat, and noshing, and on weekends the swaying, hypnotic sounds of Jamaica issue from a small stage watched over by an iconic photograph of Bob Marley. The excellent, helpful service is punctuated with "honey" and "sweetie," and the clientele's a melting pot of ages, cultures, and backgrounds. Who knew island living was as close as San Leandro?
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