The Vegetarian Option: Katashe's
If you ride the 5 train almost all the way to its northernmost stop, and get out at Gun Hill Road, you will find yourself surrounded by Jamaican and West Indian restaurants and grocery stores. Walking past the eateries hawking chicken, and markets offering such popular cuts of meat as "cow cod" (look it up), you might dismiss Katashe's as just another store, and one that doesn't look particularly well-stocked. In the back, though, you'll see a variety of patties piled up in a hot box. Behind the counter you'll see some steam trays, and you'll get a whiff of allspice. Ask the counterman what's available for lunch and he'll gladly lift the lids up to show you.
Katashe's has a rotating menu of vegan Jamaican food that they serve out of those trays. On the day of my visit they had cabbage, tofu, greens, and soy barbecued "ribs". You can get a small plate for $7.99 or a large for $11—I went with the large. After filling up the aluminum container, the counter man asked if I wanted any "carbs"—in this case, fried plantains and large slices of fried yam. There were two plastic patio chairs sitting next to the counter, with no table. When I asked the counterman if there was a place nearby where I could eat outside, such as a park, he encouraged me to take one of those chairs outside where I could sit and eat.
I'll go clockwise from the bottom right of the container. Steamed cabbage with carrots could have used a bit more salt, but was delicious when mixed with the tofu. That firm tofu was roughly chopped and cooked with lemon and spices. The collard greens (hiding under the crunchy yam slices) were also lacking in salt, but again they were a good mix with the final item, the barbecue soy "ribs". This was the real star of the show: heavily spiced, nicely seasoned, chewy and firm and slathered in a delicious sauce. In the center are the slightly sweet plantains, providing a nice counterpoint to all of the savory food. Throughout all of the dishes were whole sprigs of thyme I had to pull out while eating; this felt almost like a home-cooked meal.
I also got a couple of the Jamaican patties. At $3 each these would make a substantial snack. On the left in the yellow crust is the soy "meat" patty. The filling, which was piping hot even 20 minutes after coming out of the heating tray, was surprisingly creamy and rich. The patty on the left was filled with a mix of greens and tofu, similar to what was served from the steam trays (complete with whole sprigs of thyme). This brown crust, which I believe was whole wheat, was much tastier than the yellow crust. I prefer my Jamaican patties to have flakier crusts than these had, but they were still delicious. I washed everything down with a bottle of pineapple ginger juice ($1.50), from Grace Tropical Rhythms. It was the perfect accompaniment to the meal.
Although jerk chicken is probably Jamaica's best-known food, it actually has a rich tradition of vegetarian and vegan cooking. Ital cuisine, characterized by the lack of animal products and the use of all natural, unprocessed ingredients, is one of the characteristics of the Rastafarian religion. The idea is to purify the body, but if the delicious food at Katashe's is any indication, it's hardly a sacrifice.
1312 East Gun Hill Road, Bronx, NY 10469 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.