Featured Photo: Taste of the Island is located at the corner of Capitol and President streets in downtown Jackson.
Taste of the Island, anchored on the corner of Capitol and President downtown for nine years (10 next June), doesn’t deliver a sea breeze or palm trees. But when it’s a taste you’re after, for takeout — that’s no problem, mon.
Oxtails, shrimp curry, and jerk chicken are dished up generously to fill the orders that come in as soon as the lunch spot opens. To take advantage of this 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday restaurant, your Caribbean cravings in Jackson are best corralled into weekdays.
What brought owner/chef Richard Wiggins to Jackson, Mississippi, from his native Kingston, Jamaica? “A young lady,” he says of his now-wife of a dozen years, Chandra Higgins.
Chandra, who drops in later with their son for a quick bite, grabs a spot at the counter, opens the to-go box and grins in bliss. “Omigosh, this looks so good!”
She tucks right in and tells how they met at a friend’s house. “I answered the door, and you know how it is in cartoons when you see lights and sparks? I saw them, and I knew,” she says. He cooked for her, and when she tasted the food, that sealed the deal.
“No one in Mississippi, in Jackson, in the surrounding area, has had anything with as much flavor — just how it’s cooked,” she says. “I told him, ‘If you open a restaurant if you build it, they will come.’ The food is so good.”
“That’s a big motivation, right there,” he says, smiling her way.
Wiggins’ ways in the kitchen were part and parcel of growing up in the island country. “Typically, when you’re in the Caribbean area, in Jamaica, you always grow up cooking. You always follow what your parents do, so more people from the Caribbean — say, 70 percent — know how to cook.” The menu is the same everyday fare he grew up enjoying at home.
When he first opened, some people were already familiar with Caribbean cuisine, he says, but more are now. “It takes a little while, slow by slow, for people to get used to your food,” he says. The distinction of a Caribbean restaurant was its beacon. “People go to the Caribbean, and they taste other, different foods. Not everybody could travel to the Caribbean, so I traveled here,” bringing a taste of the region with him.
He’s hard-pressed to pick a single bestseller from a menu that includes jerk chicken, jerk pork, curry chicken and, twice a week on certain days, curry shrimp, curry goat, and jerk ribs. “Everything goes,” he says. “I’m being honest. The jerk chicken sells more than anything else, but everything goes.”
The reason for that? “Good seasoning,” Wiggins says. “We have a one-of-a-kind seasoning — jerk seasoning. That’s the main ingredient.” Spicy notes from the seasoning blend kick the dishes up a notch on the excitement scale, with just the sort of pop that propels you to keep that fork in action to get every bite.
Menu side selections at Taste of the Island include rice and beans cooked with coconut milk, fried plantains, steamed cabbage and carrots, bok choy, callaloo (Jamaican spinach) and beef or chicken patties. Jamaican sodas and domestic and imported beers are on the menu, too.
On the Jackson front, “Typically, whatever I have on the menu, nobody does it. If they do do it, they don’t do it the Jamaican way — the Caribbean way,” Wiggins says. “Like the goat — we cook it in curry sauce. Like the oxtails — people do oxtails, but ours is so different.”
“Everything is different from everybody else’s. That’s why we keep a consistent customer base. Because we cook fresh food and good food.”
And, with a flavor that’ll jerk you back for more.