Let me start by celebrating the latest example: Restaurateur Dwayne Allen, who leapt from a career in IT to open a Jamaican restaurant — in downtown, no less, which makes him an urban pioneer in my book. His cheerful, casual eatery, The Breadfruit, has been open barely over a month.
"We have no idea what we're doing," Allen says with a good-natured laugh. "I just thought downtown would be a good place to be because it's progressive, and folks here tend to be more open-minded."
The area's been craving a place like this, and it fits right in with other independent restaurants that have cropped up on the sleepy periphery of downtown's bustling core — unique, affordable spots like Matt's Big Breakfast, Fate, and Carly's Bistro, which appeal to the business crowd and locals alike. Discreetly located just east of First Street on Pierce, The Breadfruit is the sort of place you have to seek out, but only for now. Once ASU's under-construction student housing finally opens up nearby, the restaurant will be in the middle of the action.
Still, even if The Breadfruit weren't located in a neighborhood starved for more dining options, I'd have to give Allen props for his tasty menu. A Jamaican native who's lived in Phoenix for 16 years, Allen grew up on these dishes, and after years of cooking Jamaican food for his friends — many of whom encouraged him to open a restaurant — The Breadfruit has given him a chance to share his recipes with the community at large.
"I'm treating it pretty much as an extension of my kitchen at home," Allen says.
One aspect of Jamaican cuisine that shows up in a few dishes is the Rastafarian concept of "ital" — derived from the word "vital" — which emphasizes what's natural and good for you. That means vegan dishes made only from fresh fruits and vegetables, with no processed or canned ingredients.
Ital coleslaw was cool and summery, a crisp pile of shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumbers, carrots, red bell peppers, and tomatoes in a light, tart vinaigrette. Ital soup, on the other hand, was a comforting, steaming hot bowl of vegetables in a mild broth. The broth struck me as extremely bland (turns out, many Rastas shun salt, since it's processed), but I liked the huge variety of vegetables in it: chunks of sweet potato, yellow yam, pumpkin, green pepper, carrot, bok choy, collard greens, scallions, and cho cho (chayote). I have to admit, I'd still eat this simply for the vitamins, as detox for all the wickedly fattening stuff I usually consume.
While The Breadfruit is certainly vegan-friendly, it also features Jamaican classics like jerk chicken and meat patties. Nevertheless, Allen admits to tweaking a few things to suit his healthful agenda. For example, instead of serving deep-fried red snapper, his take on escovitch fish is pan-seared tilapia that's finished in the oven. And festivals — lightly sweet cornmeal breadsticks that usually accompany spicy dishes — are baked, not fried.
As a result, you can inhale a big plate of food here and somehow feel energized, not lethargic.
Side dishes that accompany entrée platters are also available à la carte, and on one of my visits to The Breadfruit, my dining companion assembled a nice vegetarian meal out of a few of them. Roasted corn on the cob tasted sweet and fresh, with a hint of smokiness. Allen says the corn is roasted in the husk then finished on the grill.
A side of seasonal veggies, including red peppers, carrots, and broccoli, was steamed in coconut broth, which enhanced the vegetables' own subtle sweetness. Rice and peas — made with jasmine rice and red kidney beans, actually — was incredibly aromatic, seasoned with allspice, thyme, scallions, and coconut milk. And crisp avocado-plantain spring rolls were a highlight, thanks to chunky, savory-sweet mango chutney. The rolls disappeared before the chutney did, so I ate the rest of the chutney with a spoon. I know, I'm shameless.
However, dense whole-wheat dumplings weren't very intriguing on their own. They were much more interesting paired with curried chicken and carrots, as the sweet gluten of the dumplings balanced out the pronounced flavor of the curry sauce. The dish also came with soft, slightly caramelized plantains and mild chunks of yellow yam. Dumplings weren't served with the curried tofu dish, although the sauce was just as potent as the chicken version. It had been a while since I'd had a tofu dish with this much pizzazz. And as if there weren't enough curry options on the menu, I tried a chicken curry patty, as well as a spicy beef patty. These quintessential Jamaican snacks were hot and a little crispy, like thin pastries.
Grilled jerk chicken, served with ital coleslaw, festivals, half a cob of roasted corn, and a big hunk of fresh roasted pineapple, was lightly charred and remarkably juicy. The seasoning was peppery to the point of being fiery, but it was topped with more of that great mango chutney, which soothed my palate. Jerk shrimp also had a delicious flavor, although the time I ordered it, it seemed as though it had spent a minute too long on the grill.
Brown stew chicken was another zesty option, with shreds of white meat in a rich, tangy sauce jazzed up with ginger, scallions, thyme, and garlic. Even punchier was the escovitch fish — the moist fillet of tilapia was plenty spicy, but a small bowl of clear, innocent-looking escovitch dipping sauce turned out to be a real shocker. A moment after I tasted it, the intensity of jalapeño-infused vinegar caught me so completely off-guard that I could only burst into laughter — before immediately eating a doughy festival to quell the heat.
It's funny, but the soda I was drinking that night was spicy, too, a bottle of imported Jamaican ginger beer that made my lips tingle — hey, it's a lazy girl's lip plumper. I loved it, though. There were some other interesting drinks as well, including cola champagne, Ting (puckery grapefruit soda), and Pink Ting.
And although there was a day's worth of cane sugar in each of those drinks, I still couldn't resist The Breadfruit's desserts. There were only two of them, after all. Ginger sweet potato pudding was a narrow slice of rich, thick pie studded with raisins and topped with a bit of coconut. Unlike the ginger beer, which was the beverage equivalent of a red-hot, this had the mellow flavor of gingerbread. And Gret's Grapenut Ice Cream & Jell-O was a sundae of Häagen-Dazs vanilla mixed with raisins and crunchy Grape-Nuts, with some cherry Jell-O thrown in for good measure. I liked the flavor, but the texture — by turns creamy, crunchy, and chewy — was most addicting.
It was unexpectedly scrumptious, like a lot of things at The Breadfruit. Now I can't wait until they get a liquor license, so I can propose a toast to urban pioneers.