All summer long, I plan to make small detours to get ginger beer. The house-made brew at Island Sensation Cuisine is yellow and opaque, clean in the way of a sudden cold wind off the sea. If you time your lunch break right — like I luckily did one day, arriving at 12:30 p.m. — you can get it right when it’s ready. A sip makes you feel like you have infinite time in some radiant utopia, though we have limited time in a tired, broken world — and not much time at all before lunch ends.
And that is the hallmark of a good place to eat.
Lloyd Campbell, chef at Island Sensation, blends the ginger beer. It looks like an unfiltered witbier or a hazy IPA. It might be the most intoxicating, nonintoxicating drink in town.
Milky, sharp, cold fire of ginger sizzling, it makes a peerless match to Campbell’s classically Jamaican food, which he fine-tuned in culinary school in Kingston. Lloyd and his wife, Lorraine Campbell, both from Jamaica, opened Island Sensation Cuisine in June 2018.
What makes Island Sensation Cuisine such a solid lunch spot is the vibe, calibrated by the ginger beer and chewy festivals and non-obvious reggae, by the neighborly service and grill smoke hanging in the air.
You can bet that jerk chicken is one of the meals that comes off the grill. The servers I had were game to lead you honestly to their favorite enclaves of the menu, and will likely suggest this Jamaican signature. Thighs come on the bone, juicy, and with semi-crisp skin and a piquant, flavorful sauce without too much heat. Jerk sauce arrives on the side. Dial up the punch and heat if you please.
Another lunch, one especially good with ginger beer, is stewed oxtails. Lloyd pressure-cooks rounds of the most underrated meat on the steer down with small kidney beans. A few dark coasters come on the plate, cored with white knobs of bone. They fall from that bone and dissolve like gelatin, all the more decadent thanks to a coating of black gravy.
Lunch comes in small and large portions. Most small portions cost $4.99, though the oxtail will set you back $7.99. A small oxtail will fill you up with the right side. You get two sides with any large.
Some of the better sides are an “island” coleslaw that incorporates red and yellow bell peppers, all heaped and dripping in a giant cup. An order of callaloo brings a generous portion of tender, leafy, irony greens, soft but not limp. Rice and beans are the side to get if you only get one: a shelf of hot, starchy comfort curling around your chosen protein.
Other offerings, though not all part of the lunch specials, are as Jamaican as the flag sailing out front: goat curry, brown stew chicken, ackee, saltfish, and so on.
Whatever you order, you should be sure to ask for a side of hot sauce, if hot sauce is your thing. The house version pulses with a Caribbean heartbeat all the more thunderous given how different the sauce is from the Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Louisiana-style pepper sauces so popular in the U.S.
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The sauce is amber. Its color comes from mango and pineapple. After an opening woodwind note of sharp sweetness and fruit, yellow habanero sears through and produces a full, tongue-coating heat. The sauce is dense and pulpy, and would be even hotter if the Campbells could find a good source for the Scotch Bonnets of their home city.
Finally, what makes this a solid lunch spot are the options, the odds and ends ideal for a third or fourth visit. Sorrel juice. Jerk sliders. And though the food isn’t always ready by early in the lunch hour, that is part of this place’s appeal: more of a warm hangout of friends and regulars munching meat pies than a formal, meticulously designed modern or corporate restaurant.
If nothing else, make your day here with a to-go cup of that bright, beautiful ginger beer.
Island Sensation Cuisine.
830 East Indian School Road, 602-279-5866.
Monday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m.