Real flavors of Jamaica, curbside in Philly

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Dave Dawes, the owner of Jamaican D's , in his lunch truck. He's usually parked on 17th Street between Spring Garden and Callowhill Streets, but you need to get there early if you want a taste of his stewed oxtails - he cooks 30 pounds each day, but the supply goes fast.

The streets of the city are scented in various precincts - near 30th Street Station, for instance, or stretches of Woodland Avenue - with the smoky spice of jerk chicken, oxtail and curried goat of Jamaica, much of it dispensed from trucks, some of them manned, to the disappointment of native Jamaicans, by Haitians or Africans whom they say don't always get the taste of things quite exactly right.

So at the window of Jamaican D's, the Caribbean-American lunch truck parked on 17th Street alongside Philadelphia Community College, hesitant first-timers will sometimes quiz the servers about the bona fides of the cooks.

And only after they are assured that, yes, these are true flavors, learned at a mother's knee in Portland on the east side of the island, do they tentatively put in an order.

And then they come back, and back again - Jamaican taxi drivers, non-Jamaican school district workers, community college students, immigration officers, parking lot attendants. All waiting patiently at the curbside. Some milling about, before the noon-time opening, bent on scoring stewed oxtail which, when it's gone (all 30 pounds of it), it's gone for the day.

The oxtails are that good. They rest overnight in a moist rub of onion, garlic, fresh thyme and allspice ("pimento" in Jamaica), and are stewed for two hours in the morning, giving up a sweet, rich, fragrant brown sauce.

In the $6 "small" container, they are heaped over gravy-drenched rice and beans, with a side of collard greens or, well, I always gravitate to the buttery, translucent steamed cabbage. (It, too, is seasoned with onion, scallion, herbs, bell pepper, and an extra sweetener, shredded carrot.)

The chunked, curried goat - also tender, not gristly like some - features a mild green curry. The jerk chicken is mild-mannered as well: "I don't like my food too hot," says Dave Dawes, who owns the truck (and for six months now a spin-off restaurant of the same name in Germantown) with his wife, Celeeda, a business graduate of Rosemont College out on the Main Line.

The "D's" stands for The Dawes, and in a roundabout way, it was the misfortune of Dave's father, Herman, who was laid off from his job as a cabin steward for Carnival Cruise Lines, that sowed the seeds for the family enterprise: Dave, who had come to Philadelphia in 2001 from Jamaica and was studying electronic engineering at the community college, suddenly found himself without money for tuition.

He went to work on the clean-up crew at T.G.I. Friday's in Warrington. He worked up to prep cook ($7 an hour). He cooked staff lunches of jerk burgers, a sort of Jamaican goulash, and plantains. He volunteered on the line when cooks took their smoke break: They called him, with a certain affection, "Jamaica."

Then one got fired and, "I said, 'I can work Friday.' "

Within seven months, he learned all four stations, inching up to $10 an hour. Nine months later, he was assistant kitchen manager ($14 an hour). And when the manager got a job at a steak house, he went along, learning more from-scratch cookery. (Half the truck's menu is American finger food - buffalo chicken wings and such.)

To pay off the truck, he worked three jobs - at a home for mentally challenged residents, at a retirement community, and in the Friday's kitchen. Celeeda worked 75 hours a week at a children's home in Langhorne.

The truck begat the restaurant in Germantown, which serves traditional Jamaican breakfasts (callaloo and salt cod), lunch and dinner.

"It makes for a good story," says Dave, taking a break in the shade on 17th Street.

And so it does; it does, indeed.


Jamaican D's

Truck: 17th Street, between Spring Garden and Callowhill; 215-668-5909

Cafe: 1265 E. Chelten Ave. (near Wister); 215-927-7415


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols