Cooking from the soul: Caribbean Island Cafe dishes up authentic Jamaican dishes
Published 12:02 am Sunday, January 23, 2022
SALISBURY — In the kitchen at Caribbean Island Cafe, Fitzroy Hamilton is cooking up a different kind of soul food.
Not fried chicken, black eyed peas or cornbread. Hamilton specializes in oxtail, jerk chicken and curry goat — dishes he doesn’t need a recipe to prepare.
“My cooking is from inside,” Hamilton said. “I’m not cooking from a book. I’m cooking naturally.”
Hamilton and Ricardo Raffington are the duo behind Caribbean Island Cafe. The tropical spot is located in the colorful red and yellow building at 944 W. Innes St., next door to Salisbury’s iconic Dairy Queen.
“I’m a Jamaican cooking Jamaican food,” Hamilton said. “You can have a Jamaican spot, but you’ve got to have that touch too.”
Born in the island’s capital city of Kingston, Hamilton spent a lot of time in the kitchen at an early age. His culinary aptitude helped him land a job in a hotel kitchen when he was 19. Hamilton eventually moved to the United States and moved out of the kitchen and onto the dining room floor as a waiter. After a four-year stint at a resort in Virginia, he moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and worked as a server at a hotel.
Rooming with a few Jamaican chefs who also worked there, Hamilton said they ate better food at home than the guests were being served at the hotel.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, people need to taste what they’re missing,’” Hamilton said.
Hamilton eventually moved to Rowan County where he started working as a chef at a Jamaican restaurant owned by Raffington’s uncle, Glenroy. Glenroy was also the one who brought Raffington to the United States from Kingston.
“He’s like my role model,” Raffington said. “He sent for me from Jamaica and I stayed with him first and started getting to know America and the community.”
A few weeks before Glenroy passed away, Raffington said his uncle gave the vision to continue the family’s culinary legacy. Raffington took his uncle’s advice and opened Caribbean Island Cafe with Hamilton. The duo chose the building where the restaurant is located and got to work renovating the kitchen, which had been left barebones after the previous tenant moved out.
Practically the only thing in the kitchen, Raffington said, was a dish sink that’s now watched over by a large framed photo of Bob Marley.
On the first day Caribbean Island Cafe opened, Raffington said the line snaked out of the door.
“We had so many people here, I was overwhelmed,” Raffington said. “We didn’t have enough food at the time because it was the first day.”
The restaurant has continued to be a place for people to enjoy authentic Jamaican cuisine that’s hard to find anywhere else in Rowan County. The top seller is oxtail, a common delicacy found in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands.
“If you don’t have oxtail, it’s going to be a problem,” Raffington said. “They’re going to start a fight.”
Another favorite among diners is jerk chicken. The traditional Jamaican jerk was a way to cook pork, but it is now a common way that beef, seafood and chicken are seasoned with a strong, hot blend of herbs and spices. Curry goat is another menu item staple and customers also clamor for seafood dishes like red snapper or jerk salmon.
Whatever a customer ends up ordering, Raffington promises it will be good.
“The food is well seasoned,” Raffington said. “It’s not your average regular food. This is real home cooked food.”
Caribbean Island Cafe draws in locals and tourists alike. Raffington said truck drivers and travelers will peel off the interstate and drive down Innes Street just because they saw the Jamaican restaurant listed on Google. Salisburians who have visited Jamaica or other Caribbean islands will come to find flavors they fell in love with on their sunny vacations.
Customers don’t stop in just for Hamilton’s cooking. They also peruse the shelves of Jamaican ingredients, medicines and snacks also offered by the restaurant. Raffington keeps a cooler stocked with Jamaican sodas like D&G and Ting, imported from the island.
Although Raffington still has ambitions in the reggae music industry as both an artist and a producer, he’s glad he followed his uncle’s footsteps into the restaurant business.
“I love to feed a community,” Raffington said. “That’s our culture.”
One day Raffington would like to marry his passion for food and music and host a reggae festival catered by Caribbean Island Cafe. In the meantime, he wants to make sure the restaurant continues to be a place where people come for a delicious meal.
Rest assured, Hamilton will be in the kitchen tending to a pot of cooking oxtail, trying to “catch that flavor” customers love.
Caribbean Island Cafe is open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 12-8 p.m. on Sunday. More information about the restaurant can be found online on its Facebook page.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct address for Caribbean Island Cafe. We apologize for the error.