Monday, April 22, 2024

In much needed expansion of the Black food scene, Taste of the Caribbean opens in Long Beach

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Chef Bernard James, who started his Taste of the Caribbean food truck back in 2014 before opening Hollywood’s sole brick-and-mortar dedicated to Caribbean food, has officially opened up shop in the most unexpected of places: East Long Beach, right next to Little Coyote on Los Coyotes Diagonal and inside the former commissary/prep area that Little Coyote used when it was at its peak.

Hailing from Guyana and blossoming his culinary career in New York only to find himself in Los Angeles after losing his wife, James has always seemingly approached the ideal of Caribbean cuisine as one that is a mix of cultures, led by the women who led his childhood.

“My journey into the culinary world was sparked by the experience from my grandmother’s kitchen,” James once told writer Martita Mestey. “Watching her turn simple ingredients into culinary masterpieces, especially during weekends when she sold her homemade treats, impacted my upbringing and passion for cooking.”

That very joy led him to his career in professional cooking and has, in turn, brought Long Beach a Caribbean-centric space to a scene that has longed for it.

Taste of the Caribbean takes over space rich in Black food history—and brings jerk chicken, rasta pasta, and more

For those in the know, Bigmista’s Barbecue and Sammich shop in East Long Beach brought on an entirely new take on barbecue hype when it moved into the space currently occupied by Taste of the Caribbean: Pitmaster Neil Strawder and his wife Phyllis had garnered such a reputation for their smoked and grilled meats that it was a competition as to where they would sign a lease when they announced they would open a brick-and-mortar.

3444 Los Coyotes Diagonal was that space—and when the space shuttered in 2018, it was a huge loss for the food scene at the time and, in a sense, makes the appearance of James and his kitchen a bit more sweet: Long Beach now has great barbecue but severely lacks in Caribbean—making the appearance of his famed jerk chicken and salmon a happily welcomed addition.

Will the Long Beach version of Taste of the Caribbean stay open until 4AM like his Hollywood location? Likely not. (And yes, Taste parties into the wee hours of the morning almost every night of the week, with the only other days being open until midnight.)

Black food, from soul to the Caribbean, was once a common staple in Long Beach—and is beginning to see a warmly welcomed return

The representation of Black food in Long Beach has dwindled along with the Black population itself—but for Blacks and non-Blacks alike throughout the city, the cuisines of the Caribbean, Africa, Afro-Latin America, and elsewhere are not only wanted locally but directly sought after in other cities—and this is for certain when it comes to Caribbean food Long Beach: Trini, Jamaican, Haitian…

Callaloo, the Trini-West India restaurant that anchored Zaferia’s bourgeoning food scene on Anaheim, has long been shuttered, with patrons long missing its weekends filled with shark soup, chicken pelau, and Trini doubles. There was a brief Caribbean popup on Long Beach Blvd. just a couple years ago that was stellar but nowhere permanently and there’s been a hint of Caribbean food appearing at food festivals

Meanwhile, the much-hyped move by Ackee Bamboo to open in Long Beach at the former Cafe Piccolo space keeps us on pins and needles as we await its opening and Grilled Fraiche was largely the sole representation Caribbean with its fusion dishes up until Taste of the Caribbean moved in.

When it comes to soul and Southern American cuisines, much of the same echoes: Soul food staples that were part of nearly every neighborhood in the city dwindled across the 2000s and 2010s—from LBJ’s Fine Foods in North Long Beach to In the Kitchen in Downtown closing up shop.

But there is a silver lining and renewed ownership among soul food purveyors: As of late, soul and Southern American food has seen a return. Sally Bevans of the much-loved Sal’s Gumbo Shack has expanded her gumbo empire while spaces like Soul Food Renaissance, McDowell’s, and Georgia’s continue to keep their doors open.

Taste of the Caribbean is located at 3444 Los Coyotes Diagonal.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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