Phoenix restaurant Cool Vybz slings jerk, curry and oxtails for Jamaican food fans | Phoenix New Times


Cool Vybz, hot dishes from a Jamaican kitchen that can cook

An island chef brings the flavors of home to a low-key Jamaican restaurant that's bursting with flavor.
Brown stew fish, deftly fried and smothered with a vibrant sauce, is one of the menu highlights at Cool Vybz.
Brown stew fish, deftly fried and smothered with a vibrant sauce, is one of the menu highlights at Cool Vybz. Dominic Armato
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In this profession, as in most, obsessive tendencies can be both a tremendous asset and a punishing liability.

One of the pitfalls of writing about restaurants is that however many you visit, it will never, ever be enough. No matter how many dishes you try, how many calories you consume or how many miles of pavement you pound while doing your research, something will always slip through the net.

Caribbean restaurants, for example, seem to be multiplying rapidly around Phoenix these days, and the paucity of coverage got me thinking it's about time I wrote about one of them. It would be easy enough to pick one that’s earned (or bought) a little buzz, make a few visits, fire off 1,500 words or so and call it done.

But what if I miss some unheralded gem?

This is how somebody like me ends up visiting 15 Caribbean restaurants over the course of three days. It’s a practice I don’t recommend for plenty of reasons, both culinary and coronary. But it does help one get a broad view of the scene at large and a good sense of who stands out.

For me, the standout was Cool Vybz Jamaican Restaurant on Northern Avenue.
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The jerk chicken at Cool Vybz is exceptional, beautifully seasoned and infused with sweet smoke.
Dominic Armato

A lovable jerk

In my defense, the cosmos is doing its best to validate my obsessive tendencies.

I first fell into Cool Vybz about six years ago, shortly after it opened. I ate some very good jerk chicken, tasted a few other dishes more serviceable than spectacular, and promptly decided that I didn’t need to hurry back.

Man, I wish I’d gotten back sooner.

Was it a slow start? An off day? Who knows, and who cares? Not only is the menu strong top to bottom, but now that same jerk chicken is positively on fire.

If you arrive for an early lunch, you’re going to smell the food long before you see it. The chicken is grilled in the alley out back every morning, filling the block with heady haze of smoke and spice — the very best kind of advertising.

Underpowered jerk chicken that’s smothered with sweet and spicy sauce always feels like a cheat. This is not that chicken. There’s a dab of sauce, yes, but the focus here is the meat itself, deeply imbued with thyme, allspice and a none-too-subtle hit of Scotch bonnet pepper. It’s tender and rich, charred to a deep mahogany and wrapped in a thick robe of sweet, flavorful smoke. And it’s presented as God intended, with every bone still right there in the bird.

There’s a deft hand making that chicken. And it’s capable of making a lot more.

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The dining room at Cool Vybz isn't a scene. The focus here is on the cuisine.
Dominic Armato

Far from home

Chef Nakia Raymond, who prefers to go by his last name, came up in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where he garnered a lot of kitchen experience as well as some local press before moving to the States.

“This is my lifestyle,” Raymond explains. “I’m a chef from day one. I love to cook.”

Raymond’s wife, Jessica White-Raymond, is not similarly blessed.

“Everybody can cook, but not everyone is a chef,” White-Raymond says. “If I cook more than a pound of rice, I can give it to the United States military for ammunition.”

Playful self-deprecation aside, White-Raymond is no less integral to Cool Vybz’ success. Hailing from Kingston, Jamaica, she handles the business end of things as well as the front of house — a humble, utilitarian room bedecked in Bob Marley paraphernalia and the requisite black, green and gold motif.

The couple met and married in Arizona, and they started the restaurant with nothing, not even a register to accept cash-only payments. But word of mouth within the community brought 500 customers to Cool Vybz on the first day, White-Raymond says, and Raymond has held down the kitchen ever since — a one-man show with a ringmaster who refuses to compromise.

“All our stuff is freshly done every day,” Raymond explains. “Small portion, every batch, we go batch by batch."

It shows.

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Don't like bones? Deal with it. You don't want to skip the oxtails. Just pick them up and slurp the meat right off.
Dominic Armato

Embrace the bones

I’m sitting in Cool Vybz on a weekday afternoon, trying to suck every last delectable bit of marrow from the last nugget of stewed goat left on my plate. I’ve sampled some superlative goat dishes around Phoenix over the years, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen my tablemates fighting over the bones.

Raymond’s curry goat is a standout dish, with a thick, luscious sauce, deeply developed curry flavor and meat so tender and flavorful it's almost like a different animal.

Phoenix diners, in the aggregate, have long maintained an antagonistic relationship with bones, which is to say most would rather not experience them at all. I can only emphasize that the bone-averse would do well to get over that hangup pronto, because otherwise you’ll never experience dishes such as the oxtails at Cool Vybz.

An unassuming dish, this is everything I want from oxtails. The morsels plumb the depths of meaty unctuousness, thickly spiced, dripping with gelatin and supple enough to slurp right off the bone. And once you’ve slurped the bones clean, the only thing left to do is mop up the rest of that delectable, meaty stew with a side of rice and pigeon peas, then sit back and contentedly groan.

The chicken curry isn’t as moanworthy as the goat, but it’s an excellent rendition, made doubly so when you sop up the sauce with festival — torpedo-shaped fried bread, made with wheat flour and cornmeal, like a savory doughnut with just a touch of sweetness.

If you absolutely, positively must go boneless, give the beef patties a spin. A heavily spiced ground beef filling is wrapped in a golden, flaky pastry scented with turmeric and … is that coconut, perhaps? Whatever the composition, it’s an intoxicating mix, and there are no pesky bones to work around.

Ask Raymond about his favorite menu items, however, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“Seafood,” he says.

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Escovitch fish is sweet and tart and smothered with pickled vegetables. Sneaky bits of Scotch bonnet pepper will set you on fire.
Dominic Armato

Fabulous fish

The menu lists "red snapper fish" as a single nondescript item, obscuring the fact that Raymond offers multiple fish dishes. They usually include brown stew snapper and escovitch fish, but be sure to ask, because he often adds any number of other specials depending on the day. If it's available, the brown stew fish is in a neck-and-neck race with the jerk chicken for my favorite dish in the house.

For those unfamiliar with Jamaican cuisine, the caramelized sugar and whiff of vinegar in the brown stew fish might evoke a sense of sweet and sour, but this is more subtly done, along with a fragrant mix of spices. Whole snapper is lightly fried to give it a robust texture, then browned and bathed in a complex, swoon-worthy sauce built on softened carrots and onions. This is whole bone-in fish. Ask for White-Raymond's help if you need it, but don’t miss this dish because you find the disassembly intimidating. Tear the thing apart with your fingers if you have to.

Raymond’s escovitch fish also is great, cooked with vinegar and smothered with spicy pickled onions and carrots. If you’re spice averse, watch out for the slivers of Scotch bonnet peppers — they’ll take you down right quick. But keep an eye on the Friday specials, as well. A recent plate of curry coconut shrimp swept in like a tropical storm, so bright, vibrant and powerful compared with other versions around town.

I hear Raymond busts out a mean lobster special on occasion, but I haven't yet had the pleasure. Based on the rest of his seafood, I can’t wait to meet it.

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Maybe leave your pet goat at home.
Dominic Armato

On island time

The menu at Cool Vybz is brief, and I think that’s for the best. During the pandemic, Raymond was forced to spend a year and a half running the restaurant — both front and back — all by himself. He may be a workaholic, but he’s also a man who’s learned of necessity not to spread himself too thin. Better to cook a handful of superlative dishes than a long list of passable ones.

And it’s wise to understand what kind of a restaurant Cool Vybz is before diving in. Your favorite dish may be on the menu, or it may not, or it may be prepared a little bit differently today. Your jerk chicken may come with that outstanding sauteed cabbage you had last week, or it may come with a cool, pickled slaw instead.

You’re on island time now. Food comes out when it comes out. And if you request extra plates to share with a bunch of friends, they’ll probably all make it to the table. Eventually.

Relax. Enjoy some tunes. Order a house-made sorrel and ginger drink or a bottle of Ting, and take your time.

This food is worth savoring.

Cool Vybz Jamaican Restaurant

2340 W. Northern Ave.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Mains $14-$22; Whole fish $35; Festival and Patties $4.

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