Found: Amazing Caribbean food in the Bay Area!
After almost a year of searching, and many disappointments, I have finally found an amazing Caribbean restaurant here. Called Kingston 11, it is located in the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. Stumbling on Kingston 11 was amazing luck.Dining Partner and I were looking for a place to eat on a Friday night in Berkeley after our dining plans fell through. A quick Yelp search revealed Kingston 11, a new Jamaican pop up restaurant that was only a block away and only open on Fridays for dinner. My feet could not carry me in the door fast enough --I absolutely love Caribbean food. I grew up eating it almost daily, and since moving to the Bay Area, my opportunities to consume it have become few and far between.
Walking in the door at Kingston 11, we were greeted by dance hall on the stereo system and friendly waiters. Walking in at 6:45, we got a table immediately. The menu is very brief: two starters and three mains. We did not order any starters, but I got the herb-rubbed salmon while Dining Partner got the jerk chicken. We'll have to try the third option, curry chicken, on a later visit.
My salmon was delicious. The meat was perfectly cooked, although I would have preferred more spice from the herb roast. The portion was also very large, and came with sides of sweet potato fries and greens. The sweet potatoes were crisp and delicious, and the greens were yummy. I'm not normally a huge fan of greens, but these had lots of pine nuts in them, which gave a delicious crunch.
I could only steal a small bite of the Jerk Chicken away from Dining Partner, and it was really good. That being said, the jerk rub was a little different than what I am used to or think is traditional Jamaican jerk. It had more of a smokey, BBQ flavor than the tangy, spicy traditional jerk. The jerk could have also had more heat, but Dining Partner had no complaints!
We enjoyed two glasses of the house sangria with our meal. Although it complimented the meal nicely, it was not the best sangria I've ever had. The base wine tasted a little bit on the cheap side, and it was pretty heavily watered down.
I have two serious complaints about the restaurant, and they are the reason I did not give them five stars: their hot sauce and their dessert.
Every Jamaican I know prides themselves on their hot sauce. It's a staple of Jamaican food, just like ginger beer. Many families have their own secret recipe that has been handed down generation to generation. With that in mind, it was disappointed to learn that Kingston 11 does not make their own hot sauce.
The dessert was another major disappointment. We split an order of the rum cake. It barely tasted of anything, least of all rum. To add insult to injury, it was drowned in spray can whipped cream. I found this particularly ironic for a restaurant that makes a big point of advertising the fact that it uses local ingredients on its menu.
Despite these two minor complaints, I think I have finally found a place to indulge my craving for Caribbean food in California!
Looks like they are at the Guerilla Cafe.
There were a few lowlights to what was a very enjoyable meal, that is for sure. I am willing to overlook a lot of them because the main points of the meal — the two main courses we had — were really good as they were. The details are things that I would expect to be worked out soon, but the pop-up is pretty new.
I don't fault them for having a brief menu at all, so I'm not sure how that's a complaint. The desserts were a major miss, but I also don't think they made them. It's possible they were selling them from Guerilla Cafe.
And in comparison to all the other Caribbean restaurants in the Bay, Kingston 11 is leaps and bounds above them. Back A Yard in Palo Alto is tragic, even though their menu is far, far more extensive. Their rice and peas tasted like it came out of a can, and their chicken tasted old. Sol Cafe in San Rafael was just all right the night that I went, and I was seriously off put by the crazy ordering system and profusion of menus. Flavah Island on San Pablo had good flavor, but took forever and was obviously reheated — although they're closed now, so it's a moot point.
And the very worst offender was Hibiscus in Downtown Oakland. Incredibly overpriced gussied up "Creole" food, which in this case was a codeword for bland, almost inedible food with some chilies.
So, of that lot, Kingston 11 is a pretty exciting find.