Caribbean Queen, the restaurant at 507 NW Fifth Ave, is an oasis.
The tiny building, painted the bright gold and green of the Jamaican flag, faces a Santa Fe College classroom building and is flanked on either side by fields of grass. The courtyard in front is obscured from the street by a chain-link fence all but overtaken by thick green vines, and the enormous Chinese plum tree in the corner graciously shades the area. It’s just about the only solace from the sun on the block.
The two tables in the courtyard are usually occupied by people eating steaming hot Jamaican food washed down with Ting, a citrusy, sweet grapefruit soda: a treasure in the desert of a sweltering Gainesville day.
On the side of the building hangs a poster for the airline Air Jamaica. Its slogan, “Many Happy Returns,” speaks to Caribbean Queen’s customers, many of whom have been eating there regularly since it opened in 2000.
The menu has hardly changed in 19 years. Jamaican staples like beef patties, oxtails and jerk chicken – plus vegetarian options like curry tofu – are served alongside peas and rice, cabbage and fried plantains. It’s all made from scratch every day by “Queen” Valerie Phillips, the restaurant’s owner, chef and sole employee.
The flavors she uses are deep, spicy and unflinchingly authentic. That’s because every Christmas, when Phillips visits her family in Clarendon, Kingston and Montego Bay, she brings back enough of her country’s signature spices and seasonings – she won’t reveal which – to last the entire year. That, she said, is what makes her food stand out.
The little things make a difference, she said. The spices she imports. The glass countertop full of ginger cookies, banana chips and other Jamaican snacks. The fact that the sodas in her cooler cost 75 cents, while those in the vending machines in the building across the street cost twice as much.
Though she remembers cooking in her home economics class in school, Phillips racked up hours in the kitchen long before that.
“My mom started teaching us to cook when our chin could reach over the countertop,” she said. “My dad made a stool and we’d stand on it. The first thing she taught us is how to wash dishes.”
Phillips said she opened the restaurant knowing that there weren’t any proper Jamaican restaurants in Gainesville. Properness, customers have learned, matters to Queenie. A sign taped to the cooler inside promises a $5 fine to anyone bold enough to slam the cooler’s door. Repairs to that cooler, she said, cost upwards of $1,500.
“That’s not how we do it in Jamaica. You don’t slam doors. You slam doors, that means you’re upset. What are you upset about? It’s about respect.”
Phillips, raised in Saint Elizabeth and Clarendon, Jamaica, was a nurse practitioner in New York before deciding to turn her passion for cooking into a career. That passion led her through culinary school in New York City and jobs in kitchens at five-star restaurants. That process, though, was mostly a formality.
“I just went to culinary school to get the certification that I know how to do things the American way,” she said, “That’s all.”
After her experience in the male-dominated restaurant industry, she knew she wanted to do things on her own terms.
“They think being in the kitchen is a man’s thing,” she said, referring to the harassment nonmale kitchen staff are often subjected to by their male counterparts.
“A woman’s not supposed to be there. We’re supposed to be out there, barefoot and pregnant. The same way I can wake up in the morning and go work for you, I can work for myself. I started this, and by the grace of God, it’s going.”
And that’s what she’s done, six days a week, ever since. Her husband and son, who she’s training to eventually take over, relieve her on Saturdays.
Phillips takes immense pride in what she’s accomplished almost entirely on her own. It’s evident in the way she describes things.
The garden growing in the courtyard?
“My rosemary, my thyme, my marjoram, my peppers.”
Her favorite dishes?
“My ackee and saltfish, the Jamaican national dish. And I like desserts. My coconut drops, my black cake.”
She uses possessive words. Caribbean Queen is hers to share with us.
“This? I can’t forget this. This is my culture. This is a part of me.”
Queen’s bean and vegetable stew
½ cup vegetable stock 2 tsp Ground cumin
1 onion, coarsely chopped ½ tsp chili powder
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped 2 tsp tomato paste
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped 1 15oz can diced tomatoes
1 tsp chopped garlic 1 15oz can red beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp chopped fresh ginger 1 15oz can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper
(optional) rice or chips for serving.
- Heat the stock in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add the onion and peppers and simmer for 5 minutes or until softened.
- Stir in the garlic, ginger, cumin and chili powder, stirring for about 30 seconds or until very fragrant.
- Add tomato paste and diced tomatoes, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Stir in beans and peas and simmer for an additional five minutes or until warmed through. Serve over rice, with chips or by itself.