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Restaurant review: San Rafael’s Caribbean Spices offers exciting, lively flavors – Marin Independent Journal

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Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices' Creole Jerk Wings are marinated in a wet jerk seasoning.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices' Calypso Prawns are grilled in a citrus sauce with bell pepper and onions.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices owner Frantz Felix serves Veronica and Paul Rosario in the San Rafael restaurant.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices' Ackee and Saltfish includes onions, cherry tomatoes, sweet plantains and rice.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices' Creole Oxtails fall off the bone.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices restaurant in San Rafael offers a lively atmosphere.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices' Griot pairs well with pikliz, a fermented cabbage, carrot and chili relish.
Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal
Caribbean Spices opened in San Rafael in 2019.

Food and language are the best introductions to another culture. Caribbean Spices gives us a delicious tour and now, between the super-rich holiday foods of November and December, is a perfect time to explore San Rafael’s Caribbean Spices, one of Marin’s restaurants that offers food that will keep your taste buds alive.
For several years, owner and Haitian native Frantz Felix only served his cuisine out of a food truck, which still can be found at Fort Mason in San Francisco and in Oakland, before opening his San Rafael eatery in 2019. Takeout orders and the food truck helped his restaurant to survive the pandemic. Felix is excited to invite diners inside to enjoy meals that introduce them to new and vibrant flavors. Inside the restaurant, decorated with Caribbean flags and colorful walls, you’ll find booths along one side of the room as well as tables. Our server’s warm greeting amplified the lively atmosphere.
The menu is presented with a low-alcohol cocktail list plus beer, wine and soft drinks. Even though many of the dishes have similar spices, there is a distinct difference in the flavors imparted to each dish.
The appetizer platter of Creole Jerk Wings ($12.95) and Griot ($17.95), with savory and sweet plantains, was served with a small bowl of yellow sauce made with scotch bonnet chilies, carrots, onions and vinegar. The heat of the chilies is controlled and I think that most palates, except for super-sensitive ones, would enjoy it.
The chicken wings were marinated in a wet jerk seasoning that includes allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and thyme, among other spices, as well as onions, chilies and sour orange. Roasted until deeply browned, the wings were deliciously tasty and tender.
Griot resembles Mexican carnitas. Chunks of pork shoulder had been marinated with a different but similar assortment of spices used on the wings, cooked with sour orange and lime, then roasted until dark and crispy. The cubes of pork were delicious with the yellow chili sauce and even better with the pikliz, a fermented cabbage, carrot and chili relish. Its sharp tang was the perfect contrast to the darker flavors of the pork.
We preferred the sweet plantains to the savory (both are available as an appetizer, $9.95). The sweet, mahogany plantains added more to the enjoyment of the appetizer meats. Green plantains, like large bananas, are used for the savory ones and ripe plantains are used for the sweet. The savory plantains are peeled, cut on the diagonal and browned in a bit of oil, then smashed flat while warm and refried. Unfortunately, they lacked in flavor and were dry.
Ackee and Saltfish ($22), looked a great deal like scrambled eggs with peppers and onions except ackee is a fruit in the same family as the lychee that arrived in Jamaica on slave ships along with salted fish. Ingenuity and desperation put the two together.
You won’t find many restaurants in the Bay Area serving oxtails unless they have Caribbean connections. Here, Creole Oxtails ($23), a rich stew, was served with a special rice and beans cooked in mild spices and chicken stock. Beans and rice are a staple all over the Caribbean. The beans were indigenous to the Americas but the rice came with the slaves from Africa. This one, with its earthy flavors, was particularly delicious. A bowl of that alone would be very satisfying. The oxtails are “washed” before seasoning. The washing is done with lime and water, rubbed, rinsed and then tossed with the seasonings, a variation on the spices used on the jerk wings. Left to marinate overnight, the meat is then cooked on both sides until dark brown. Onions, red and green peppers, celery, thyme and scotch bonnet chilies are then added, along with water, and the meat is braised until it’s falling off the bone.
Celery, bell peppers and onions — the “holy trinity” of vegetables, as it’s called in Creole cuisine in Louisiana — make their way into the Calypso Prawns ($21). Here the trinity share the platter with 10 tail-on prawns in a mustard-Creole sauce. The sauce is neither as thick nor tomato saturated as the Louisiana style. Served with a bowl of white rice, it’s in a russet sauce that has an intriguing taste on the back of the palate. Felix suggested it was the mustard.
Desserts ($6) are made in-house so we were tempted. The Carrot Cake was a cupcake served warm. Unfortunately, the caramel at the bottom of the jar of Coffee Flan had turned watery. The table favorite was the Pumpkin Roll, but it seems as if the desserts are a bit of an afterthought.
The more flavorful savory items and lively vibe make this a restaurant to explore.
Ann Walker is a freelance food writer. Email her with suggestions, comments and questions at ijfoodwalker@gmail.com.
Address: 819 Fourth St., San Rafael
Website: caribbeanspicessanrafael.com
Phone: 628-253-5385
Cuisine: Caribbean
Noise level: Comfortable
Liquor selection: Wine and beer, low-alcohol cocktails
Gluten-free selections: Yes
Vegan dishes: Yes
Dog friendly: No
Parking: Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; closed Mondays
Prices: $11 to $23
Summary: Authentic Haitian food in an atmosphere as lively as the cuisine.
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