After picking up Jamaican patties at Randy’s Patties and jerk chicken at Spence’s Bakery (see previous post), I got back on my bike and headed south down Vaughan Road to St. Clair West and Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods, to properly round out the full Jamaican experience of the Oakwood/Vaughan corridor. It’s a peculiar, distorted intersection because of the organic curvature of Vaughan Road (originally a market road to Vaughan, in regular use since the 18th century and long before that as a portage route/trail), busy with streetcars rumbling past, a convent across the road, a massage parlour on the other side, and Dutch Dreams ice cream rolling waffle cones out on a table in the alley just north of Albert’s.
Albert’s, like Randy’s and probably Spence’s, is a bit of an institution and has been so successful over the years that it has now expanded to consume its entire building (formerly two units, a small one on the end which was Albert’s, and a full-size Coffee Time location which had the dubious honour of being the site of my first legal practice: I met refugee and immigration clients there when I worked in the division for Osgoode’s student legal clinic):
Compared to the cramped counter with eight seats in the previous digs, the new space is slick and well-appointed by comparison (not to mention licensed to sell liquor). It has its own washrooms, a luxury not afforded by the original location.
Additional bonus: it’s open until 4:00am (there is definitely no problem getting a cab at the corner of Vaughan and St. Clair at 4:00am, because the parking lot is full of them), and I’m not sure if it closes at all on the weekends because there’s also Jamaican Breakfast available starting at 7:00am:
The menu is expansive, with all the classic Jamaican dishes you’ve come to expect living in Toronto (King fish, jerk chicken, oxtail, stew beef, curry goat, ackee and saltfish, rotis, cod fritters, doubles, patties, rum cake, coco bread, more or less everything, including fried chicken). Some things (like the fried chicken and the stew beef) are only available on weekends. I ordered the oxtail dinner, which gets you a serving of oxtail stew, rice and peas, and house made coleslaw. While waiting for my order I wandered over and had a look at the art:
“Don’t look too closely,” advised another patron. While the staff were ringing up my order, I noticed some unlabelled plastic bottles of a cloudy whitish liquid in a cooler display and asked if it was coconut water. “No,” the counter server said, “it’s ginger beer. We make it.” I said I’d take one. “Good choice,” said the guy in line behind me.
They packed it all up nicely for me, I got back on my bike and took it home. After the patties from Randy’s, and the jerk chicken from Spence’s, it was time to move on to the oxtail. But first, perhaps a sip of ginger beer?
*Cough* It doesn’t look like much, but it’s sweet and fiery all at once. The decoction of fresh ginger has been slow and sure, and the amount of ginger root involved probably staggering (which may explain the price, a little steep at $2.25). This is even more expensive than Fever Tree Ginger Beer from the UK, which is a fine ginger beer, to be sure, but it certainly doesn’t pack the spicy kick of the Albert’s unmarked home-brew, or bring an incandescent glow to the esophagus in the same way. This stuff burns all the way down, but sweetly. It would probably make a great dark n’ stormy but you would need a formidable dark rum to stand up to it.
Now for the oxtail:
This is a vast portion, and my husband and I usually split one because to do otherwise would be madness. There are several generous scoops of rice and peas, lavished with oxtail gravy (and for poor law students, just this is available at a reduced price: rice and peas with the teasing almost-substance of a great sauce, but no meat), a healthy pile of stewed oxtail and a small cup of coleslaw. The rice and peas are very satisfying by themselves: “dirty” white rice, cooked up with a little garlic, coconut milk, and of course with pigeon peas and huge, beautiful fava beans. The peas and beans are cooked well and are not mushy at all. The coleslaw is basic stuff, carrot and cabbage and perhaps a little green onion in a light, runny dressing, but a nice crunchy counterpoint to the heaviness of the meat and rice.
The oxtail itself has been cooked very slowly, and while eating it one is constantly navigating around bones large and small. But the meat is succulent and tender, the collagen almost liquified and the way it has melted into the sauce gives it another level of richness and complexity. The sauce is a very dark, tasty brown, not premised on scotch bonnet so not hot at all, but drawn from almost every other classical spice in the Jamaican palette: allspice, thyme, nutmeg, probably a bit of cinnamon in this case. While cleaning up after dinner and putting away the leftovers, I kept dipping into it with my fork, “tidying up” drips down the side of the container with my finger. It’s impossible to stop eating and perhaps it temporarily destroyed my ability to be analytical: it’s a delicious sauce and that’s about all I have to say.
Albert’s does many other great-tasting things besides: whatever lost souls find themselves washed up at Albert’s at 3:45am may just find salvation…there are many worse places to be at that hour, both physically and psychologically. Just don’t look too closely at the art.
Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods, 542 St.Clair Avenue West (at Vaughan) http://www.albertsrealjamaicanfoods.ca
$11.50 for a massive ox-tail dinner capable of feeding two adults (or one teenager).