Practically everybody I know, myself included, wanted to go to that Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson concert in Sauget the other weekend. Dylan I wasn't so keen on; I'd seen him play ten years ago and found his low-talker rambling, hard enough to decipher on a studio album, even more garbled (and, given his Vincent Price-y, bra-shilling demeanor nowadays, less poignant) in a live, open-air setting.
Willie, though, is the poop. Somewhere between last year's release of his album Outlaws and Angels, this summer's Dukes of Hazzard remake (in which Willie takes on the Uncle Jesse role) and the death of Johnny Cash, he's become the country-crooning retro-rocker of the moment. It seems that every bar I've gone to in the past six months, somebody dials up "Whiskey River" on the jukebox.
Instead of seeing the Bobby-and-Willie show, I had dinner at Caribbean Sun in University City. In the women's restroom -- affixed to the toilet-paper dispenser -- was a promotional sticker for Willie's just-released LP Countryman, a work of reggae-country fusion that includes covers of Jimmy Cliff hits "Sitting in Limbo" and "The Harder They Come." (The latter, I learned, Willie performed that very night.) It's not all that much of a stretch: Reggae is sometimes branded as Jamaica's country music, and reggae artists have adeptly covered country standards (just listen to Toots & the Maytals' uplifting rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads"). Plus, Willie's been rumored to toke a spliff now and then -- and Countryman sports a big fat ganja leaf, front and center (unless you buy it at Wal-Mart).
But Countryman has been largely panned by critics, dismissed as a trivial, failed experiment in genre-bending. Caribbean Sun, on the other hand, dishes up hit after hit of authentic, endearing and quite worthwhile Jamaican fare in a groovy dub-grub setting.
Like their distinct styles of music, the foods of the South and the foods of the Caribbean share more common ground than you might expect. Island cuisine, actually, tends to resemble food from everywhere: With all the West Indies colonization that went on, staple Jamaican ingredients include African yams and plantains, Asian rice and curry, Spanish garlic and French herbs and sauces. Cajun cuisine descends from the French Acadians, soul food stems from African-American roots, and Creole reflects much about French, Spanish and African cooking. Cajun and Creole cooks swear by the "holy trinity," three vegetables that serve as the foundation for many preparations. Precisely what constitutes this sacred trifecta is subject to debate. Bell peppers, onions and celery is the most commonly accepted combo, but some vehemently argue for garlic or tomato over celery. Whichever way you slice it, all five ingredients are scattered throughout Caribbean Sun's menu.
So it is that when you order oxtail stew at Caribbean Sun, you get something that looks and tastes a lot like what you get at, say, Del Monico's Diner: four pieces of tail bone resplendent with beef so tenderly and lusciously braised, it's hard to tell where the meat ends and the fat begins.
With other dishes it's easier to distinguish where the Hey, y'all ends and the Hey, mon comes in. There's fried chicken on the menu, but it's done up Jamaican-style, which means that after it's removed from the pan, it's stewed in a mixture of onion, celery, tomato, garlic and fresh thyme. The simmering step renders the bird more like meat loaf, soft and gracefully seasoned. There's also, of course, jerk chicken, one of Jamaica's most renowned creations. Caribbean Sun chef/owner Prince Phillip -- a Jamaican native who came to St. Louis in 1984 and spent eighteen years in Blueberry Hill's back-of-the-house before this -- makes his own suavely calibrated jerk rub, incorporating garlic, hot peppers and thyme. The chicken occasionally suffers from under-marinating and over-smoking: It was pleasant when I tried it that Friday night, but on subsequent tries, it was like gnawing on drywall.
Saltfish -- not a species, but fish (typically cod) that's been salted and dried -- is another purely Jamaican delicacy. Saltfish fritters, an appetizer, are said on the menu to combine dough with thyme, scallions, bell peppers, garlic and saltfish. They're yummy, though in a sweet rather than salty-fishy way; if there are bits of fish in them, they're undetectable to the naked eye and don't deliver much fish-ish flavor. In fact, the fritters most taste like Italian zeppoli, fried dough balls (just like funnel cakes). Akee and saltfish is considered the national dish of Jamaica. Akee (also known as ackee) is a tropical fruit that possesses a bright red skin with large seeds inside surrounded by creamy white flesh. (The flesh is the only edible part; the rest is poisonous.) Akee and saltfish is often eaten for breakfast in Jamaica, and it's easy to see why. When the fruit is sautéed with pieces of saltfish, onions, tomatoes, black pepper, garlic and thyme, the end result looks like scrambled eggs. To American palates, it's a curious dish. I was a little put off by its ammonia odor, and alternately liked and disliked the dish from one forkful to the next.
I did not have the same experience with the escovitch fish, which I not only wolfed down, but actually fought over at the table. Like the fried chicken, the fish is first pan-fried, then simmered with tomatoes, scallions, bell pepper, bay leaves and fresh thyme; unlike the fried chicken, the preparation renders the fish's skin crackling-crisp, with a sharp, citrusy flavor. The menu says Caribbean Sun typically employs salmon for the escovitch, but Phillip says he sometimes uses tilapia or (as on the weekend I ordered it) red snapper. I can't imagine salmon or tilapia delivering the same punch the snapper did, with its fantastically firm, stark white meat inside.
All entrées come with a tuft of tangy vinegar slaw (a.k.a. Calypso salad), a heavenly, mushy plantain or two, and a bed of rice and peas -- which is Jamaican for red beans and rice and which Caribbean Sun prepares with coconut milk and good ol' Uncle Ben's. This is the best red beans and rice I have ever had. It's got a downy, pillowy texture and a scrumptious, savory-sweet taste. I could eat this stuff until I die. In fact, I think I want to be eating it as I lie dying, and when I croak I want to be buried on a bed of it.
There's so much else to recommend at Caribbean Sun -- the empanada-like spicy patties filled with beef, chicken or vegetables; the fish soup (a.k.a. fish tea), a grayish broth dotted with bits of rice and fish and a single, finger-shape dumpling; the curried goat; the perfectly moist, nut-studded banana bread that would make your grandma jealous. Only one part of the menu disappoints. Though the salads bear exotic tropical names like Prince Royal, Reggae Sun and Savanalamar, their ingredients are across-the-board bland: iceberg, romaine, tomato wedges, cukes, some bell peppers, some red onion and -- perhaps in a nod to St. Louis roots foods -- Provel cheese. I ordered the other salad, Spiced Black Bean, twice in search of the titular frijoles negros and never spotted a one.
If I was disappointed about missing Willie Nelson's Sauget set, Caribbean Sun's vibrant, cheery interior wiped the sulk off my face that night as soon as I stepped through the door. With walls boldly painted red, yellow and green, a cute, cabana-like shingled roof above the bar and a swipe of azure running along the bar railing, the décor evokes paradise found. On the far wall, Bob Marley keeps watch over the room in the form of a larger-than-life canvas portrait. Most of the soundtrack belongs to Marley, too -- although DJs spin on certain late-nights, and bands sometimes play too, including Phillip's own, the Murder City Players (he's one of the vocalists). The service is appropriately laid-back, though a little too much so on my second visit, when the server forgot to bring some of the things we ordered and they still showed up on the bill. But that's not a huge deal. As Willie would say: Nothing I can do about it now. And as Marley might respond: I know a place where the Caribbean Sun is shining.