No Oxtail? No Problem.
Two beef patties, oxtails, rice and peas and cabbage. That’s my standard order when I walk up to the counter at a Jamaican spot. Sometimes there’s the option to add cheese in the beef patties, giving the crunchy shell and greasy ground beef a creamy finish. It tastes like home.
Or at least I thought it did until I met Qulen Wright, and learned that there was such a thing as meatless Caribbean food. Lots and lots of it.
Wright and his wife Elisha Hazel own Ninth Square Caribbean Style, a vegan Jamaican restaurant on George Street in New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood. After opening in late 2016, the restaurant has been serving up vegan mac and cheese, jerk tofu, rich curried vegetables, fragrant lentil patties, spicy cabbage and more out of its bright storefront, the windows painted to announce the fare inside.
But the story of its genesis goes way back. Wright’s love for vegan food began in the 1990s, when he cut meat and dairy out of his diet almost entirely. At that time, he was channeling a different creative outlet: music production, which he did (at one point, around the corner from his current digs at Baobab Studios) until opening the restaurant.
As he cooked, he thought constantly about how easy it was to cut meat from his food. His Jamaican upbringing had introduced him to fruits, vegetables, and flavors Americans often overlook: soft, almost egg-like ackee, bright greens in glistening yellow curry, peppers cooked just so. In the U.S., he found that other cultures adapted their food portions to match the meat-heavy American diet. But there was no need to, as far as he was concerned.
“There’s more vegetarian food than all the meats,” he said in a recent interview at the restaurant. “People will talk about Jamaica and talk about how the meat wasn’t the center of the dish, it was more of the side. Whereas [in America] it’s more of the reverse, the sides are tiny and the meat is big.”
“That’s the American diet, the sad diet,” he added after a pause.
Wright hails from Trelawny Parrish, a town in northwest Jamaica nestled in Cornwall County. As he was growing up there, Hazel was experiencing a different childhood in New Haven, where the idea of the city as a culinary mecca had not yet been born. Raised by Jamaican parents, Hazel said she was always familiar with the diversity of their food, but had more trouble finding it in the city.
“People are looking for different kinds of food now,” she said, recalling the New Haven restaurant scene of her youth. As she grew older, she said she witnessed a transformation, with restaurants like Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, Soul de Cuba, and Amoy’s Cajun and Creole coming in one by one, and then very quickly.
What they didn’t see in that diversity was vegan Caribbean food (although New Haven and Bridgeport do lay claim to several Jamaican spots, especially on Whalley Avenue in New Haven and Boston Avenue in Bridgeport). That would be their niche, they agreed. Working together, the two designed a menu celebrating vegetables: protein-packed lentils and split peas, sweet and peppery potatoes, steaming stew that customers could drink from the bowl.
“It’s all about flavor,” Hazel said. “Meat doesn’t actually have flavor. Take away the seasoning and you have nothing.”
One veggie patty, curried vegetables, nine bean stew, green beans, curried chick peas and rice was all it took to make this oxtail lover forget meat entirely. The flavors and tenderness of Caribbean Style’s food is true to form. It has every element of Jamaican food, without the animal carcass. The curried vegetables have the perfect balance of smoky and buttery, tender and crunch. The nine bean stew complimented the rice and the praised the curried chick peas.
Like Wright’s music, there’s a harmony in their intention—the restaurant is proudly Black-owned, and runs like a well-oiled machine. Customers are greeted by their names and asked about their lives. Regulars all have a favorite dish, and few of them overlap. It’s like a barbershop on Sunday morning, but there's curry instead of clippers.
“A lot of people like talking to us about how they’re changing their diet and they’re happy we’re here because they don’t know what else to eat,” Hazel said. “There are customers that look like us, they see [the food] and they’re familiar with the flavor, they like seeing a Black-owned business, let alone a family running a business. That’s something that they want to support.”
Wright and Hazel are working to make it a community spot in their outreach efforts. Ninth Square Caribbean Style has provided Career High School with food, and catered to popular community events like local fashion designer Neville Wisdom’s fashion show, local vegan food festival Compassionfest, and New Haven’s LEAP for Kids program. The couple said they hope their presence in the New Haven restaurant world is shifting residents’ understanding of what health tastes like, and how easy it can be to make delicious meat and dairy free food.
“Vegan food brings a lot of different kind of people together,” Wright said. “We’ve had reggae bands passing through, we had Styles P, we had a punk rock band come in! It’s kind of like how music brings people together.”