People’s Choice on Wall Street in Norwalk is as nondescript as a restaurant gets, but if you happen to walk by, the aroma of jerk chicken and stewed meat makes your head turn even before you open the door. Step inside and you could be in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica – the savory spicy smells, the clanging of the pots and pans, people lining up to order directly from the kitchen, beverage coolers stacked with Jamaican drinks and sodas with names like Kola Champagne, Peanut Punch, and Irish Moss ….
I must have driven past this restaurant countless times before I was introduced to this ‘find’ by my Jamaican Nanny – Corrine. During the snow laden Connecticut winters, homesick for ‘ackee and salt fish’ and ‘callalloo’ she wanted nothing more than her weekly visit to People’s Choice. Initially, I would wait in the car as Corrine would dash in to pick up her take-out and then, on the drive home she would describe what she had bought as the car filled up with smells that were rich and wonderful. One day Corrine came back with a green bottle of Ting - a carbonated drink made from Jamaican Grapefruit, which she called ‘Island Sunshine in a Bottle’ and a flaky Beef Patty for me – her definition of ‘comfort food’. With a sip of Ting and a bite of that patty – I was an island cuisine convert.
This week I decided to introduce this ‘Island in the Sun’ to Stephanie Webster. We walked in thrilled to find their one table actually empty, and started ordering what was familiar to me - the Beef Patty and some sodas. A PATTY is The Ultimate Snack in Jamaica and it is an amalgamation of the country’s colonial past and the different immigrant cuisines that have fused to make contemporary Caribbean food. In essence the Jamaican Patty is inspired by the English Turnover, but here the pastry is tinted yellow with egg yolk and turmeric and the meat filling inside- traditionally ground beef is seasoned with curry and cumin spices introduced to the Caribbean by the East Indians and the African heritage is reflected in the Cayenne pepper. People’s Choice carries a range of Pattys - Spicy Beef, Medium Spicy Beef, Mild Beef, Chicken and Vegetarian for $2/- piece. We ordered a spicy beef boasting flaky crust and robustly flavorful beef filling. We found out that chef/owner Dudley Foster sources the patties from the Royal Caribbean Bakery in Mt Vernon but bakes them fresh every morning (the patties are one of the only menu items not made on premises) – he is usually sold out by early afternoon. The most popular is the spicy beef – the extra zing comes from the Scotch Bonnet pepper which is indigenous to the island.
Opened eight years ago by Foster, a native Jamaican, People’s Choice is primarily take-out with a single large 6 person table. It is a family enterprise with Foster’s wife and mom helping him in the kitchen. Initially catering to the local Caribbean population, the restaurant has slowly developed a diverse patronage of people seeking out this authentic island cuisine with "customers traveling from as far as White Plains and the Bronx" says Foster. The menu encompasses most of the West Indies specialties so we started off by ordering the National Dish of Jamaica – Ackee and Salt Fish. This is a traditional breakfast dish but is served throughout the day. The Ackee, a local fruit (related to the lychee) is cooked with salt cod resulting in a dish resembling scrambled eggs. It is served with a slice of steamed Yam, a round flour dumpling and a whole cooked banana. This dish is certainly an acquired taste and not for every palate. We found the accompaniments fairly bland compared to the more exotically comforting entree and were told this is to counterbalance the saltiness and the rich flavor of the breakfast scramble. I might pass ordering this dish next time though our editor enjoyed it and it is one of Foster’s best sellers.
Next came a plate of Jerk Pork heaped with rice and kidney beans, a big slice of fried plantain, and vegs- a steamed concoction of sliced cabbage, shredded carrots, peas and corn (this is the standard accompaniment for all of the meat dishes). The jerk pork had a braised mouthfeel, tender, juicy, surprisingly flavorful with a thick spicy-chocolatey sauce that tasted like mole. Foster informed us that the rich gravy was ox-tail sauce and the pork got its distinctive flavor from the jerk spice rub which predominantly has allspice and scotch bonnet pepper along with nutmeg, thyme, cloves, scallions and cinnamon. This was the table favorite.
Then we dug into the Stewed Chicken which had a great deep brown glaze on the skin and a rich taste. The flimsy plastic knife was unnecessary as the meat literally fell of the bone. According to Foster, the secret to the nuanced flavor and color is ‘Browning Sauce’ a staple in Caribbean cuisine.
After that came the Oxtail Stew, a dish that is usually served at festivals or family celebrations in Jamaica. This was the first time I was eating oxtail and it tasted quite similar to brisket – the meat was tender and accompanied by deep brown gravy. It was garnished with giant white fava beans on top.
For a basic no-frills restaurant all of these dishes, the meat in particular, were very well cooked and seasoned, the flavors exotic and comforting on the cold day. Portions are generous and the prices reasonable. A small meat dish is $8/-, medium $10/- and large $12/- making this restaurant very popular, as we witnessed the steady stream of customers picking up take-out during our lunch.
Stuffed to the gills, we were ready to call it day – but Foster insisted that we try his ‘piece-de-resistance’ – The Jerk Chicken. What can I say – it really was the highlight of our lunch (right after the pork). The chicken was moist and the jerk spices gave it a subtle punch- simply delicious. He swore by the Walkerswood jerk rub which he gets from St Ann’s in Jamaica and suggested we visit him in the summer when he barbeques the jerk chicken Jamaican style, in a steel drum using pimento wood with allspice leaves in the coal, adding another layer of flavor.
For dessert we ordered Coconut Drops – more coconut mounds than drops. These were a delectable concoction made by cooking pieces of bite sized coconut pieces in brown sugar with a dash of ginger, a specialty of Foster’s mom. The combination of ginger with coconut and brown sugar was very sweet but delicious and almost transporting. At People's Choice, the food, the aromas, the people, the ambience… it is almost like traveling to the Caribbean.
NOTE: People’s Choice – Yes that is the name of the restaurant , not a title or an award. And there is another People’s Choice Jamaican Restaurant (seems a popular name) in Bridgeport, Foster states that they are not associated with each other.
People’ Choice Restaurant, 77 Wall Street, Norwalk CT. Open Mon thru Sat 7:30am -10:00pm Phone – 203 838 8272