The stretch of South between Fifth and Seventh Streets probably offers more dining variety than any other two-block stretch in the city.
There’s cheesesteaks (Ishkabibbles), gyros (South Street Souvlaki), BBQ (Dickey’s), modern sandwiches (Woodrow’s), haute American (Serpico), pierogies (Tattooed Mom), Neapolitan pizza (Nomad, just around the corner), coffee (Bean Cafe) and ice cream (Evil Eye Cafe), as well as several Chinese take-out joints.
Add another cuisine to the mix: Jamaican. And not just any Jamaican. Really good Jamaican.
Last weekend, Little Negril Jamaican Cuisine quietly opened for business at 627 South Street (215-925-2100). The space was previously home to a string of short-lived restaurants, including Latin Flavor, Baklava Cafe and Gaja Gaja.
“Quietly opened” is a relative term. The launch wasn’t announced anywhere, but the crowds definitely noticed. According to proprietor Patrick Howell, the place has been jumping since doors opened on April 8.
“I always used to visit South Street and say I wish I could set up something there, and finally I got the opportunity,” says the Jamaican native, who also operates two Little Negril outposts in New Jersey — one in a Cherry Hill strip mall and one at a stand in the Berlin Farmers Market (see the four-star Courier-Post review here).
The NJ locations aren’t just a local favorite; they’ve made it onto the radar of visiting celebs.
“[Rapper] Rick Ross recently came to our Cherry Hill store with his whole entourage,” Howell says, “and so did reggae superstar Luciano.”
Howell originally opened the restaurant as a side project because he was sick of not being able to find great Jamaican food in this region, but it grew into something more.
“I took time off from my job as a medical administrator to get the South Street restaurant going,” he says. “Running three places is a lot of hard work — I know I’m supposed to be crying about that, but I actually love it.”
Luckily for him, he has plenty of good help. His wife Linnett is his main chef, and her recipes are executed by several other Caribbean natives to create dishes that have more authentic flavor than anything else around.
Curries of goat and chicken are rich and meaty, with fewer bones than usual. Like the other stews (chicken, fish, vegetables) they’re available in platters with plantains, cabbage and rice, or to avoid the bones entirely, get them rolled in roti — the chef will remove them before he makes the wrap. Whole fried fish is also on offer, and jerk chicken is a specialty, the meat marinated in a mix of spices and pimento wood brought up from the islands, then grilled over an open flame. It ends up with a fiery kick — none of this food has been tamed for American palates — but also lots of nuanced flavor.
Two dozen seats are available for sit-down dining (BYOB), set among wooden walls and reggae tunes, but Howell recognizes South Street peeps are big on grab-and-go.
To that end, he’s added a jerk chicken sandwich (with cheese and veggies on a large sweet roll), and a big selection of patties. Though the flaky dough pockets aren’t made in-house, they are sourced from a Jamaican-run purveyor (he won’t say which) and come in flavors like spicy beef, spinach, beef and cheese and curry chicken.Desserts are also worth checking out, from the tropical coconut-mango cheesecake to the intensely rich Jamaican rum cake.
Fresh-pressed juice is coming to the South Street shop soon (think carrot, beet and ginger), but for now there’s a big selection of imported bottled drinks including Jamaican classics like peanut punch (it’s good!), sorrel-ginger and champagne-flavored cola.
Portions are large and prices are reasonable, including a great lunch deal: Curry, rice and a soda for $9. For now, the restaurant opens at 11 am and closes at 10 pm weeknights with later hours slated for weekends, assuming there’s demand.