Details on Back A Yard, Good Caribbean grill in Menlo Park
- David Sloo
Hounds Melanie and Peter posted earlier about Back A Yard (see link to their postings). Here are some details about the food available and the quality.
Back A Yard is a newish Jamaican grill just east of 101 on Willow Rd in Menlo Park. Nowhere could be more convenient for takeout for Dumbarton Bridge commuters.
Robert Simpson, the chef, is described in the take-out menu as having learned to cook in Jamaica and Belgium. It is hard to imagine two more sophisticated culinary societies, so my hopes were high.
The menu divides into four essential sections: jerk, barbecue, fried seafood, and the special.
Straight off: the jerk pork is probably the best I have had. It is not particularly hot -- I like my jerk spicing much hotter ordinarily -- but it has a depth of flavor that is one of the features of fine Jamaican cooking. When eating a good Jamaican dish, it feels like you are peeling off different layers of spice -- sweet nutmeg, gamey cumin, searing scotch bonnet chillies.
Fortunately, it's not just the jerk that's worth eating. Red beans and rice are cooked to the point where the rice and (red) beans are equally tender -- sort of the opposite of Badian peas-and-rice, where the beans and rice share flavor, but contrast in texture.
Back A Yard's fried plantains are sweeter than I usually expect here, but each piece was evenly cooked and non-greasy. If it's any testament, I put an order in a box into my fridge overnight, and it was entirely gone in the morning. (Small household, too.)
I also had the special: oxtail with rice and beans, mac and cheese, and a forgettable salad. The slices of beef tail were well spiced (mild, but interesting) and cooked to the point where the muscle pulls back from the bone -- and from the other parts that are so important in oxtail. Braised or grilled oxtail is a challenging dish: most people use these parts for soup, since the gelatine-producing tissues and flavor are so concentrated in the tail, as in a foot. But Back A Yard pulls off a reasonable dry oxtail, with three meaty pieces.
Macaroni and cheese is slightly sweet, with a measured onion flavor. It rated well among my opinionated staff (we have a macaroni and cheese scorecard on the fridge). Not mushy, but also maybe not cheesy enough.
Coco bread is warm and fat and filling, and worth dipping in the jerk sauce.
Jerk pork, chicken, salmon, and combination meals run $7.50 - $12.25, two sides. Barbecue and seafood meals run $8.50 - $11.95, two sides.
Specials listed on the menu: oxtails (daily), stew peas (Wed), curry goat (Thu), escovitch fish with bammy (Fri), curry chicken (Sat), ackee and saltfish (Sun).
Back A Yard, Caribbean American Grill, 1189 Willow, Menlo Park. 650 323 4244.
If you like hotter foods from the Caribbean, try the curried goat when available. It has a nice bite to it that goes well with the rice and beans. I always figured jerk seasoning was supposed to be mouth numbingly hot (most of the ones I've had are), but I'm sure I'll get used to Back A Yard's more subtle combination of spices.
I recommend filling out the comment card while at the restaurant. Aside from providing feedback, it allows you to get on the mailing list. That way you can know what the specials are going to be for the next day. They sometimes have specials that don't follow the menu listing.
Now, has anyone tried the barbeque? I was saving that and the mac-n-cheese for another visit.
re: Melanie Wong
I wasn't enamored with the German Chocolate Cake. The black cake was interesting, nicely dense and spiced.
I've now tried the BBQ. I'm not sure that it's really smoked, as there's little to make me think so -- no smoke ring, not a lot of smoke flavor outside of the sauce. Still, the ribs (4 of them in the hot quick items order) were succulent and tasty.
I also had the escoveitch catfish sandwich. The fish was moist, and with the sauted onions and carrots with vinegar on top seemed quite light and not very greasy. Of course, it's hard to test the batter on the fish since the onions and carrots dampened it a bit and the fish began to steam itself in the sandwich, but it was quite good. No muddy taste to the fish either.
I was eating at Backayard last Friday and the chef told me that I had missed the callaloo by a couple of weeks. The last batch for the season was prepared then. They found a local source who grows it in his backyard, so I don't know how consistent the supply is, but they will try to have it next season.
Great post, David! I'd been excited to try it from reading about Chef Robert Simpson's background on his website. The idea of a CIA-trained chef with big name hotel background setting out on his own as one of the few commercial establishments in East Menlo next to a scruffy laundromat was absolutely tantalizing. Here's a couple of references to him on the web from his prior life -
From GA Walden's column, Jan 03 -
Crowne Plaza SFO press release, Oct 02 -
I had dinner there with three girlfriends two weeks ago and it was a hit. Seeing that the website mentions "9 seats", I'd called ahead to let 'em know that we'd need a table for four. Also, I wanted to check on vegetarian selections for one of the diners. Turns out that I talked with Chef Robert and he was tickled that someone would be making a "reservation". Also, he said he likes the challenge of making vegetarian food taste special. He said he'd buy some extra things and assured us that we wouldn't be disappointed.
When I arrived, the small dining area had three two-tops and a stack of chairs. To seat the four of us, a larger, sturdy folding table was brought out and positioned by the doorway. While the menu has day of the week specials, these might be available on other days and posted on the white board with other specials. With four of us we got a pretty good sampling even though the sides were limited.
We started off with a couple of the patties. The photo below shows the Jamaican beef patty. Even serving his food on chinet, the chef's hotel background was evident in the plating, garnished with a raw scallion, some sprigs of thyme, and whole peppercorns. The beef patty was much better than Mango Cafe's in Palo Alto, and better than I've had around here. The freshness of the pastry with a buttery crumb and nice flakiness made a huge difference. The filling tasted freshly prepared, not frozen. It was somewhat monotonal, but still good. Even better was the vegetable patty, filled with a mix of fresh veggies chopped and stewed in a light and savory sauce. While shaped the same way, the pastry crust on this one didn't have the orange cast and was even lighter in texture. On tasting the vegetable patty, the four of us sat back, turned to look at each other, and broke out in smiles knowing we were going to have a delicious meal.
We had ordered the coco bread, which our friendly waitress said is eaten with the patties. However, it didn't come out until after we'd polished those off. No matter, the warm and pillowy bun (shown with the entree plates) was delicious in its own right.
We tried three "animal" plates. The day's special of oxtails were quite nice with the meat pulling off the bone fairly easily and comforting flavors. This went the best with the rice and beans. Our waitress had told us the jerk chicken was dark meat, which I prefer, but our plate of chicken hacked on the bone was mostly white meat. The smoke from the open flame grill (no oven baking here!) lent an extra dimension to the Jamaican spice blend. I expected the jerk marinade to be hotter, but like you, I really appreciated how each component revealed itself in turn rather than being all muddled together creating its own excitement and surprise. The bit of jerk sauce offered on the side had its own explosion of flavor, offering both sweet and hot-spicy notes with the tell-tale floral tones of scotch bonnets. My one criticism is that the chicken was on the dry side, but I chalk that up to white meat. My favorite of the three was the ackee and saltfish. I've had bacalhau and eggs at Portuguese restaurants but this was more interesting to me. I still can't get over the ackee, my first experience with it. This tasted like very luscious curds of shirred eggs made with lots of butter and coconut-scented cream to me, how can this come from a plant? The saltfish was a lower grade than bacalhau but more appealing for its rusticity in this dish. The savory onions, bits of pepper, the mildest touch of spicy warmth, and punctuation of salty/chewy dried cod hit the spot for me.
The surprise of the day was how wonderful the vegetarian entree of jerk tofu and its accompaniments turned out. The jerk seasoning and grilled charry flavors played off the slabs of firm tofu beautifully giving it more spicy-hotness than the chicken. One could appreciate the dimensions of the jerk spice and hand at the grill even more on this tabula rasa. The thick slice of yam was infused with coconut tropicality and finished on the grill. The corn-y festival (long tongue-shaped fritter) didn't do much for us. We loved the vegetable medley of broccoli, onions, sweet peppers, carrots, and probably something I'm forgetting. Sauteed in coconut cream, this treatment brought out the natural sweetness of the vegetables and softened them to a tad beyond al dente. Unlike the other three plates, we polished off every single morsel on this one.
Sweet and ripe, the plantains were handled masterfully, as you can see by the even golden-brown color that brought out all the carmelly goodness. No hard, uncooked edges in these, we were fighting over them. The salad (with ranch dressing!) was complimentary on each plate for a spot of green but didn't add much more than that.
For dessert, we had the key lime pie and the black cake. Again, the presentation had a hotel-kitchen symmetry and look even though served on paper trays. Both were awesome, and I can't decide which I liked better. The key lime was intense and oh so zesty. And, while it was quite sweet, it didn't have the pasty, granular texture that too many versions suffer from. Maybe the black cake's appeal was being a new flavor for me, having only tried it once before when a friend made Colvin's recipe. I think the desserts were about $2.50, and at that price, you don't need to choose. Get both!
Our server looked away when I poured wine from a paper bag into the Pepsi paper cups. It's near impossible to get a liquor license in their neighborhood, so I wouldn't expect that to change soon. There was a steady stream of take-out customers during the time we were there. It was also a nice coincidence for Peter Yee to walk in, lured by the email announcing oxtails as the special of the day.
re: Melanie Wong
Whoops! Forgot that we also got a small sized order of chicken and sausage gumbo to share. This was a goody too, made with good homemade stock and not overly thick or gummy from the roux or file powder. I think our total tab was about $20 per person including tax and tip, and we had enough food leftover to feed one or two more people.
Chef Robert came out from the back to chat with us. When he introduced himself, I blurted out, "You're the chef? You gotta get rid of that picture on your website, you're much handsomer and younger looking than that!" I just checked the site again, and I see he's swapped out his photo for one that looke more like him. (g)
I asked him how someone like him decides to start a venture like this one in East Menlo Park. He said that he had brought his family to the Bay Area three years ago for a job at a big hotel. They decided they wanted to settle here after living in many other areas and he was ready to do something on his own. He said he's enjoying being his own boss.
re: Melanie Wong
Thanks for the additional background info Melanie. I actually ate at the Swissotel Chicago while Simpson was the Executive chef there. Don't remember the details but the whole Swissotel experience was pretty spectacular.
Each report makes me wish I could get down to Menlo park especially in light of a mini Carribian crawl.
Are there any house made drinks like sorrel?
You're more atuned to Caribbean flavors these days than I am, and I'd been hoping you'd give it a go.
It's too bad the regular menu isn't on the website. I've lost my copy of the take-out menu, so can't say for sure whether sorrel is offered or not. I do remember that they have Ting soda.
To update and confirm my impressions, today I went by and ordered some fried food. The batter is a medium-to-heavy one, maybe a little sweet, that can fry up to a crunchy state, as it did on the shrimp. We had a shrimp-and-catfish combo, which comes with two sides.
The shrimp were delectable -- good flavor and the right balance of batter to crustacean. There were four shrimp in the order -- I guess they might be about the size called 21/25 in the market, which means 21 to 25 per pound before preparation.
The catfish was not as good. We got two pieces, and the flatter of the two was almost greasy and cooked a little too thoroughly. The chunkier piece was cooked more evenly, and for some reason didn't feel as oily.
For sides, I reiterate that the fried plantains are excellent and sweet, and the beans and rice has rare depth of flavor. I expect that Chef Robert is especially generous with flavor ingredients in making the beans and rice -- a chunk of a well-cooked scallion adorned our order.
Robert took a small piece of sweet potato pudding from the fridge for our desert. Very creamy, but bland, this pudding should be served warm or at room temperature or maybe not at all. Has anyone tried the key-lime pie?
Back A Yard will have new hours in January. They are no longer open on Sundays.