Take a foodie staycation at tropical restaurants in Vancouver

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      The Jamaican sun was warm on André Barrett’s face as he stood by the roadside in Kingston. He was six years old and was about to have a taste of jerk pork from a vender peddling food on a bicycle. He took a chomp of the spicy pork and cooled the heat with a bite of sweet Jamaican hard dough bread. “I just stood there in ecstasy at that food, man. Nothing else mattered but that jerk pork,” he recalls.

      Barrett owns Riddim & Spice (1945 Commercial Drive), a Jamaican escape for diners stuck in rainy Vancouver. “We put some sunshine in the people of Vancouver because they need it,” Barrett chuckles.

      Restaurants like Barrett’s allow Vancouverites to take a mini staycation, sating their craving for food from hot places without the cost of a plane ticket.

      He and head cook Velta Currie, a native of Manchester, Jamaica, sit in the restaurant, reminiscing about meat cooked in metal drums, smoky with the aromas of pimento wood and logwood. Currie describes Jamaican cuisine as “natural home cookin’,” and on his menu he offers everything from curry goat to ackee and saltfish, the latter available only on the weekends.

      The top seller is jerk chicken, which he marinates overnight in a mixture of allspice, garlic, rosemary, onion, salt, pepper, soy sauce, paprika, hot peppers, olive oil, and a little sugar. (You can buy a bottle of the marinade for $6.) The next day, the chicken is roasted at 350 ° F for 50 minutes, then slathered with a hot sauce that’s made from the chicken drippings. “All the juices and spices that are co-mingling create that sauce. It’s like a volcano erupting from the core,” says Barrett, licking his lips.

      It’s clear that people from sunny places are passionate about their cooking. At Vallarta’s Mexican Restaurant (2991 East Broadway), owner Francisca Hernandez sits at a long table, chatting rapidly in Spanish with a family. The 67-year-old hails from a small village called Suchitoto in El Salvador, and serves up both Salvadoran and Mexican food. Hernandez, in a kerchief and rolled-up sleeves, has the feel of an auntie who’s always coaxing you to eat more.

      “Nobody would give me a job now, but here, I work,” she explains. “I don’t want to stay at home and be depressed. Here, there are so many people.” Hernandez’s first foray into cooking was when she was 13 and sold meals to soccer players in her village. “The players were very happy because they hadn’t brought a lunch,” she says, laughing.

      Besides Mexican standards like quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, and flautas (deep-fried, filled tortillas), Hernandez also cooks her Salvadoran favourites: chicken tamales, and pupusas filled with ground pork, beans, and mozzarella cheese.

      For the tamales, Hernandez makes a chicken stock and then adds a bit of it to corn flour to make a dough (masa). She shreds the chicken meat she used to make the stock and then cooks it on the stove with tomatoes, black pepper, and cumin. She fills a bit of dough with salsa and the chicken mixture before wrapping it tightly in a banana leaf and steaming it for 45 minutes. The secret to a good tamale? The masa. “Not too wet, not too dry,” she cautions.

      The generous spirit of tropical living is equally found at Delicias de Alicia (4854 Imperial Street, Burnaby), where owners Rolf Krawinkel and Alicia Aguilera are willing to share their story with anyone who sits down and gets to know them and their food. Krawinkel started visiting Cuba in 1998, eventually falling in love with Aguilera and starting a family with her. He also fell for Cuban food at his in-laws’ ranch in Holguin, where relatives would feast on roasted pig that had been rotating on a spit for hours.

      The couple moved to Vancouver in 2003, and life was manageable until Krawinkel developed throat cancer in 2008 and lost his job. His wife, blind from birth, began doing catering on the side to pick up extra money. Last March after Krawinkel’s health had stabilized, they decided to open a restaurant. (“Make sure you tell her that I’m the one who does all the cooking,” insists Aguilera in Spanish to her husband.)

      “She’s a very good cook, and I have to say it’s her heightened sense of taste and smell that allows her to cook the way she does,” Krawinkel says proudly. The couple’s menu features hearty Cuban dishes that aren’t overly spicy. Krawinkel’s top pick is guisado de frijoles negros con costillas de cerdo, spareribs cooked with black beans in a pressure cooker along with garlic, onion, sweet bell peppers, tomato paste, and cumin. Aguilera recommends potaje de frijoles colorados with chorizos and tostones, a dish of kidney beans with pork sausage and deep-fried plantains, which she fries twice to make extra crispy.

      Krawinkel says eating in Cuba is especially memorable because of the friendliness of the locals. “The very first thing that people will say after you’ve only just met is, ”˜Welcome, this is your house.’” And when you meet this couple, you really do feel true Cuban hospitality without having to leave Vancouver.