Caribbean Delight has so many things that other Charleston area restaurants don’t. There are green glass bottles of Ting, the brisk Jamaican soda, chilling in the cooler. Ackee and codfish, a homey scramble of sauteed fish and West African fruit, is served on Saturdays. And while cornmeal fritters are hardly unique to a town where thousands of shrimp are plunged into hot oil every day, here they’re called “festivals,” in Caribbean fashion, and sold for 50 cents apiece.
But Caribbean Delight is missing one item that’s a given almost everywhere else: Plates. The reliance on partitioned Styrofoam boxes makes sense, since most of the bustling restaurant’s customers bypass the half-dozen booths and red vinyl stools at a counter dressed up with a hazy island sketch along its base; they’d rather take their orders with them. What would they want with a dish that couldn’t be snugly closed and carried?
Where the practice runs into trouble, though, is on the menu’s seafood section. Caribbean Delight fries its escovitch fish whole, and red snapper didn’t evolve to fit in a square box. So the dish arrives with a toothy snout poking out one corner of the box, and a stubby tail encrusted mid-flap extruding from the opposite end. It’s a slightly ignominious position for such a glorious fish.
Really, it’s a fish deserving of a silver platter. Scattered with a chromatic collection of cooked-down onion loops, pickled bits of red, yellow and green bell peppers and slivered carrots, the fish is flaky and tender. It’s fried wearing not much more than salt: The flavor blast comes courtesy of a vigorous dressing bristling with apple cider vinegar. All the deliciousness comes at a bargain price, too: For a fish that could feed two people, accompanied by glistening plantains and a pair of sides portioned out so generously that they pose another challenge to the box’s dimensions, Caribbean Delight charges $15.
Like so many dishes in the Caribbean canon, escovitch is an edible history lesson. “It goes back to slavery days, before people got refrigerators, and so they used vinegar to keep the meat,” chef-owner Ambrose Campbell says of the escabeche descendant. “It’s really Spanish, and then we changed it a little bit.”
Those peppery changes and energetic tweaks are central to Jamaican cooking, and on delectable display at Caribbean Delight, Campbell’s fifth, and currently only, restaurant. A native of Jamaica, Campbell 30 years ago moved to the U.S. In addition to opening restaurants in Georgia and Florida, he was stationed at the Naval Weapons Station in the early 1990s. “I always liked it here,” he says. “Carolina is my home now.”
Campbell keeps two grills behind the restaurant: One is dedicated to smoking, the other to finishing. Campbell’s masterly control of the process is evident in the jerk chicken, one of the four entrees that are available every day, along with jerk pork, oxtails and curried chicken. If you’ve got your heart set on a certain stew, curried goat or seafood preparation, it’s wise to call beforehand to make sure your visit coincides with its appearance.
Infiltrated by smoke and fragrant allspice marinade, the chicken’s pulled from the grill long before it becomes a dry canvas for its complex sauce. It’s served bearing traces of sizzle, and with perhaps more sauce than you might expect. When I first tasted Campbell’s jerk, I was struck by its sticky-sweet resemblance to Manischewitz Concord grape wine. Campbell is careful about revealing what goes into the sauce, which has distinct ginger and garlic notes, but it turns out I didn’t imagine the alcohol and fruit: His signature jerk ingredient is blackberry brandy.
The sugars muffle the jerk’s pepperiness, but it’s a wonderfully heady sauce for fluffed-up white rice with fat kidney and lima beans, boiled until their skins split. The Jamaican version of hoppin’ John is a pleasantly ponderous counterpart to the steamed cabbage, sporting a fresh green flavor that’s polished with pepper vinegar. Other side dishes include white rice and collard greens, which represent a good chance to sample the genuinely spicy Jamaican hot sauce that Caribbean Delight keeps behind the counter. It’s for sale, along with an array of seasonings, snacks and rum cake.
As the rice suggests, “if sauce, then starch” is a basic culinary equation, and Caribbean Delight offers some doozies in the latter category. There’s a very good version of roasted breadfruit, sturdy and salted, that would make a fine gateway breadfruit for eaters new to the creamy, bland pod. Bammy, a sort of cassava hoecake, is paler and sleeker, but otherwise shares most of the breadfruit’s attributes. The sweetest choice is coco bread, bloated soft rolls that traditionally double as buns for beef patties. At Caribbean Delight, the bread outshines the pastry, but it’s hard to knock the cheap, quick hit of curry.
For a longer curry treatise, try the chicken. The ratio of meat to fat and bone wasn’t favorable when I tried it, but the coconut milk sauce had a lovely garlic-backed zing. Even better is the stewed oxtails, a proper umami mess of allspice, tomatoes and robust beef that slips from the bone, although with just enough cling in some spots to allow for the fun of gnawing the meat free. Caribbean Delight may not stock plates, but there’s a filled napkin dispenser on every table in the brightly painted dining room: Have at it.