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New York Dispatch: A Passengers’ Road to Jamaica

A tango dancer knows when it’s time to leave the milonga the same way a taxi driver knows when it’s time to go back to the garage.

Before the last tango, the dancer suffers from a strange mix of anticipation and fatigue. Before the final fare of the shift, the driver – at least this driver – moves into a similar state.

The last passenger stays with you the same way your last dance does. No matter how much you may have screwed up in hours past, if you don’t get lost or endanger the life of that last fare, you walk away happy from a day on the road. And if you somehow connect with your partners in the back seat – via a real conversation, a good story or just a genuine feeling – you walk away re-energized, triumphant, ready for the next round.

When Max and Gillian and daughter hopped into my cab on Madison Avenue and asked me to take them to the Central Park Zoo, I had a feeling this was going to be a good final fare.

It wasn’t just the pleasantries we batted back and forth – or the story they told about meeting in Jerusalem and eventually moving to the Bronx to raise their baby girl (who was understandably feisty when we got stuck at a few red lights). And it wasn’t just the Jamaican restaurant in Spanish Harlem they told me about – it was the way they recommended it.

“Don’t go on Sunday,” they said, “Edward’s not there, and there’s no rum cake.”

Rum cake was crucial, they implied, as were rice and peas and sweet plantains. I turned off the meter a couple of blocks before we got to the Zoo. These were good people, and I was definitely going to try their Jamaican food. The day after our ride, Max sent me the address of the restaurant to make sure I found it.

Last night, my co-adventurer Lilian and I finally did. We were a little wary when we walked into Walkers Woods Caribbean American Restaurant – no one was sitting in the few plastic chairs that fronted the take-out counter, the fluorescents blazed, Jeopardy blared, and Edward wasn’t there.

But Fred was, and he packed up the last two pieces of rum cake for us while we studied the menu taped to the plexiglass that protected him from us.

He was out of Ackee and salt fish, Jamaica’s national dish – “You have to come earlier. We eat that at breakfast time.” But he had plenty of jerk chicken, chicken curry, smothered steak and oxtails.

We settled on a small order of oxtails ($10 with 2 sides) with rice and peas and sweet plantains. It took Fred about 10 minutes to put it together – which was a little puzzling, since the stuff was already sitting on his steam tables.

When he finally gave us our food, we had to fight for a second fork. But it was worth it – so worth it. Our oxtails were smothered in a simple brown sauce, falling off the bone, fatty in all the right places. Our sweet plantains were slightly firm and left no grease on our fingers. But rice and peas (beans) were by far the most remarkable thing in our tin.

“What’s your secret? What do you put in your rice?” I asked Fred.

He giggled and gave me a shy smile.

“Come on, man, you know I won’t be able make it like you. Tell me what it is.”

“Coconut milk,” he said.


Lilian begged for two more forks, and we dove into rum cake. We could smell the sweet liquor as soon as we took our dessert out of the wax paper.

And even though the cake had been sitting around since morning, it was still moist, especially on the bottom, where the alcohol had settled.

“I’m coming back,” Lilian said.

“My customers always do,” Fred said.


Walker’s Woods Caribbean American RestaurantMap it
2135 2nd Avenue (between 109th and 110th Streets) – Spanish Harlem
Tel. 212-996-2310
Open: 8am-11pm, 7 days a week
Prices: $8-12 for meat with two sides
Cash only
Recommended: oxtails, rice and peas, sweet plantains and rum cake. Fred was out of collard greens when we showed up – they might be worth trying, along with a side of cabbage.

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