By: Jason Perlow
One of the reasons why my wife and I decided to move to South Florida six years ago was that we wanted to feel like we were always on vacation.
But the reality of living down here is that weather aside, much of the food and the culture is exactly the same as we had up north.
When people back home ask me what it is like, and whether I miss the old neighborhood, I say “It’s just like Jersey. But with palm trees.”
And while there is some comfort in having access to the familiar amongst our beautiful year-round sunny weather, it also resonates a sameness that often becomes wearily monotonous.
That doesn’t feel like going on vacation. It feels like ennui. Cue the Jimmy Buffett — not the Jimmy Cliff.
So when I come across a place like Rootz, a tiny café that serves Jamaican cuisine, which is able to mentally transport me someplace else, I’m all over it.
It’s right next to the fitness club in the shopping center directly across from University Hospital. And you may very well need a workout after having a meal here.
Do not expect frills. There isn’t any signage yet. It has no decorations. Not everything on the menu is available yet. It’s a former takeout pizza place with 16 high-back stools on four high-tops and eight singles along the walls.
Everything is served by default in styrofoam containers with the assumption that most of their customers are taking their food to go. Reggae music is streaming on autopilot. The sun shines brightly through the large front window and the smiles inside are even brighter.
It doesn’t feel like you are in Florida, it feels like you are going to some local dive in Ocho Rios or Montego Bay and you’ve been given a tip on where to eat real local food from your taxi driver just after being picked up from the airport on the way to your resort.
Start off with an ice-cold Red Stripe — Jamaican for beer — or a Rootz Punch, a non-alcoholic interpretation of a Rum Punch seasoned with floating pearls of Jamaican allspice that is both sweet, bitter and herbal (no, not that kind of herbal).
Now you are on vacation.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Jamaican food. I’ve been there only a few times. But what I do know is the best food on the island, like many places in the Caribbean, is prepared at roadside shacks, outdoor cafes and in private homes. By cooks that put love into their food. Exactly like this.
This is the real thing, made with fresh ingredients and plenty of spice — the Scotch Bonnet pepper, a close relative of the Habanero, is present in just about everything.
In skilled hands, the “bonney” doesn’t overpower, it provides a fruitiness and warmth that compliments the flavor of the dishes. This pepper, along with allspice and thyme, is the signature seasoning of Jamaican cuisine. You can certainly order the food hotter if you think it doesn’t hit the high notes, but I’d caution you not to do so.
While there are some similarities to Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican cuisine, because of the Spanish influence and from other indigenous cultures in the Caribbean as well as Africa, Jamaican food is very distinct in its spicing. And it has to be experienced in a place like this.
This is island food at its best, especially if you are a chile-head. Chef Ade, who owns the restaurant with his family, can be best described as an artist in the comfort food of his native culture.
The menu runs the gamut from charcoal-grilled Jerk chicken and pork (only Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays) to homestyle dishes like Escoveitch (fried snapper in Creole sauce), curries as well as “island-style” pasta creations.
We began with crispy fried Jerk Wings, which really brings out the allspice and classic Jamaican flavor, and is only a little on the sweet side, as well as the Honey Hot, which are like classic Buffalo with a strong hit of Scotch Bonnet and then dipped in honey.
Both are excellent, are quite spicy, and I’m hard-pressed to say which one I like better. Make sure you have a cold drink handy.
While something of a reverse import back to America, the Mac and Cheese is true Jamaican-style and is not to be missed — it’s baked to order and served in its own aluminum tray, and is super-cheesy with a creamy texture. Like a lot of other things on this menu, it’s also a tad bit on the spicy side, incorporating fresh cayenne peppers and a few other things I couldn’t easily identify.
They neglected to tell us everything that was in it when we asked because it is a family secret. Just order it — it’s a bargain.
Bang Bang Shrimp — while also not something you will normally get on the island — has also been adapted to Jamaican-American palates. It’s not just spicy and rich, it’s also got curry and other things in it.
Nothing at this place should be taken at face value, even if you think it’s a simple dish or something you recognize.
It’s not typical monochromatic Caribbean food and you can tell just by the way Chef Ade does his plating, as well as his attention to the freshness and variety of vegetables he uses.
Yes, you will get your veggies here. Order the mixed vegetables with your entrée and you will get a bright canvas of colors that you typically will not see in other Caribbean cuisines or even in regular Jamaican food. You’ll get Okra, Green Pepper, Carrots, Squash, Onions, and Cabbage.
We were stunned when we got our Curry Shrimp — it practically jumped out of the tray, and the seasoning of the vegetables was wonderful and paired great with the yellow rice they had that day. And if you ask for a salad, you’ll get a real salad, with nice red tomatoes as well.
The restaurant can also do Ital Rastafarian-style (vegan) food with soy chunks, which is similar to textured vegetable protein (TVP) but has more of a dark meat chicken-like mouthfeel when cooked.
We had it with butter beans, prepared in the style of tripe, with a light curry sauce. This was incredibly flavorful, surprisingly spicy and goes well with Festivals (a type of white cornmeal frybread) and Bammies (fried cassava flatbread, introduced by the native Arawak Indians).
If you are looking to try a whole bunch of things, consider their Sunday Brunch, served from 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Rootz Bar N Cafe
7168 North University Dr.
Tamarac, FL 33321
Tues – Thurs 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Sun 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Jason Perlow is a long-time foodie who spent 20 years in the New York City and New Jersey metro areas reviewing restaurants for The New York Times and his personal food blog, Off The Broiler, which he started in 2006 and ran for ten years. He is also the founder of eGullet, a popular food discussion site and not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001, which was featured on Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” cable television program.
As a technologist by profession, he writes the Tech Broiler blog for CBS’s ZDNet web site. He has been a Coral Springs resident since moving to South Florida in 2012.