Good Mood Island Food: What You Should Try In Antigua
By Melanie Reffes, Special for USA Today
Bite by bite, the sunny island where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea is a foodie hot spot with a diverse roster of restaurants and local specialties guaranteed to please every palate. Spice up your stay and try West Indian recipes, piquant Creole dishes, habanero-tinged hot sauces and a picnic basket of sweet Antigua black pineapples and juicy mangos sold by the side of the road. At the culinary intersection of land and sea, check out our menu and get ready for a sweet, spicy and salty melange of island fare.
Coconut and Codfish
On the southeast coast away from the fray on a 100-acre peninsula, St. James Club is where you’ll find Chef Dave Ralph’s infectious smile and enthusiasm to match. All-inclusive for singles, couples and families, the resort is also where you’ll find authentic Antiguan fare on the menu at the airy Rainbow Garden. Start with the Chef’s Fish Water; an aromatic bowl filled to the brim with steamed snapper, onions and sweet peppers. In keeping with the seafood theme, taste test the Shrimp Creole in a tangy tomato-garlic sauce with salty cured codfish. The national dish called fungee (pronounced foon-jee and sometimes spelled fungi) is a hearty forkful of cornmeal and okra that looks and tastes like polenta. What the islanders call ‘Chop Up’ is a must-try soft mash-up of spinach, okra and eggplant. “Every cook adds his or her own touch to the recipes,” explains Chef Ralph, “these are dishes I have eaten since I was a small child and now as a chef I encourage our tourists to try them.” For a sweet finish, coconut dumplings with a hint of cinnamon and rum balls with real rum are a home run. For those not staying at the resort, a USD$95 day pass ($47.50 for kids) includes meals, snacks, unlimited beverages by the glass and watersports for working it all off.
In a Mango Mood
On Valley Road on the southwest coast, Sarah Henry, or Miss Henry as she is politely called by her friends and family (which includes just about everyone), is also affectionately known as The Mango Lady of Bolans Village. Still sprightly at 86 years young, Miss Henry has been selling sweet mangos by the side of the road for as long as anyone can remember. The mother of 13 children, grandma of 60 and great-grand of at least 20, she is a mango mainstay in her small village selling the ripe fruit for about a dollar each. Dubbed the ‘King of all Fruit’ by those in the know, mango trees were brought to Antigua by Portuguese traders and are considered a symbol of love (not to mention that they’re loaded with nutrients and vitamins). If you’re lucky, Miss Henry will also have her special peanuts for sale, which she roasts in sand and salt and sells at her charming, no frills roadside stand. “A true legend,” smiles Cleo Henry, one of Miss Henry’s grandchildren, “she is Antiguan entrepreneurship at its best.”
For fans of the juicy fruit, mark your calendar for the Mango Festival in July in Christian Valley; a fruit forest in the Sherkerley Mountains on the south coast. Hosted by Antigua’s Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Tourism, the festival is a magical mango marketplace with vendors selling fruity soap, scented candles, aromatic wine and sweet sauces, cakes and jams.
Pining for Pineapples
Grown in black volcanic soil, Antiguan pineapples are smaller than those you may buy in the supermarkets at home. Weighing no more than three pounds, the juicy fruit is sold at markets and by feisty roadside vendors. In Forks Village on the south coast, Clemie has been at her yellow fruit stand on Old Road every day for two decades. Displaying whatever is fresh that day, the super-sweet pineapples are her biggest sellers and go for USD$4 each. If you ask nicely, she’ll peel it for you and if she’s not too busy, she’ll give you an earful about local politics and who she thinks should run the government.
If it’s Saturday morning, the Market on the aptly named Market Street in the capital city of St. John’s is the best place to pick up fresh fruit, vegetables and fragrant oils. Vendors like Sister Grant with her straw hat, pink t-shirt and red-striped apron are delighted to describe their bounty to passers-by. Arrive early and head to Hazel’s Kitchen, where starting at 7 a.m. the gracious chef is frying banana pancakes. A sweet treat to start the morning, the filling pancakes are more like fritters; full of mashed ripe bananas, a dash of vanilla and then deep fried to golden deliciousness. A side of salty fish makes for an inexpensive breakfast.
Local Food Where the Locals Eat
At the buzziest breakfast spot in town, Chefs Paul and Sandra and owner Abena Straker are in the kitchen before the sun rises getting ready for a cast of hungry locals that stop by every day. With a menu as playful as its name, the no-frills Suga Beez lives up its slogan: “where eating local food is a buzz”. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, specials change daily with none priced higher than USD$10. If it’s Monday, ask for bull foot soup, on Tuesday try the curried conch and on Wednesday, it’s all hands on deck for a sweet and salty dish called duccana; like a tamale with grated sweet potato, pumpkin, coconut and cornmeal which is steamed in a banana leaf and served with a side of salt-cured cod. Add a wedge of macaroni pie and curried goat and it’s a hearty plate at Suga Beez on Popeshead Street, a short stroll from the market. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot peppers (especially good on the grilled snapper) but go easy with the first pour, you can always add more. A glass of just-squeezed golden apple juice is as refreshing as it gets on a sunny Antiguan morning.
Food With Views
Just below the peak of the hill on the west coast, Dennis Cocktail Bar dishes up island fare overlooking Antigua’s picturesque and popular beaches called Ffryes and Lil Ffryes. Also a chef, owner Dennis Thomas learned to cook watching his mom prepare dinner on a coal pot and brings those recipes for curried conch, grilled lobster and chicken to his restaurant on the hill. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fans come early for Happy Hour that kicks off at 4 p.m. and concerts every Sunday afternoon featuring steel pan players making merry on a small stage.
For the real deal (and plenty of tourists), head to the look-out at Shirley Heights on Sunday from 4 p.m. until the last person leaves. A guaranteed good time, the barbecue and sunset party has been rocking the island for more than three decades. At nearly 500 feet above the sea, the views of English and Falmouth Harbours are mesmerizing especially after a few local Wadadli beers and a generous serving of chicken, ribs and locally-caught wahoo grilled with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil. Order a few Johnny cakes (subtly sweet fried bread that stands in for pancakes) and you’ve got a belly-filling knock-out meal on the hill.
Trends With Benefits
Take two entrepreneurial women and their creative recipes and you’ve got one of the most original stores on the island. Natura Health & Healing on All Saints Road, east of the capital city of St. John’s, is where owners Jennifer Jeffrey and Silvana Moses welcome shoppers as if it were their home. Celebrating the fruits and spices of the island, the chefs turned businesswomen offer shoppers a glass of their lemongrass-mint-golden-apple lemonade as well as spoonfuls of whatever they made that day, like their sweet potato and plantain chutney. Packaged pretty for gifts, jams (coconut is to-die-for), chutneys and hot sauces (the mango variety rocks) are all made in their taste kitchen behind the shop. “Our hot sauces are unique because you taste the fruit first and then the warmth,” says Jennifer Jeffrey whirling around her spotless kitchen, “our flavors change depending on the fresh seasonal fruit available.” Ask the gracious ladies for a taste of their sweet, gooey lemongrass-flavored honey made from best of local bees and you’ll be a fan after the first taste. Keep up with their new flavors by checking their Facebook page.
Big and Buttery
North of St John’s at the nondescript corner where Hilda Davis Drive meets Dickenson Bay Street, Papa Zouk is a party-fueled dive bar with a big seafood menu and legions of loyal fans. German-born owner Bert Kirchner claims his rustic restaurant with madras tablecloths, straw lamps and a steady soundtrack of toe-tapping Zouk music not only has the largest rum selection in the Caribbean but also grills the yummiest seafood on Antigua. Open Monday to Saturday from 7 p.m., the star attraction is the spiny local lobster sharing a big platter with shrimp and mahi-mahi. Fish fans will like the bouillabaisse with big morsels of the catch of the day swimming in a tasty tomato broth, whole red snapper and golden brown butter fish nuggets. The spicy hot vinegar adds zing to the delectable crab backs and to wash it down, Ti Punch packs a punch with Antigua English Harbour rum, lime and brown sugar that has been cooked to a syrup. “Our bartenders pour one very potent punch, then we spin nonstop Zouk tunes and the party stays red hot all night long,” smiles owner Bert Kirchner posing for snaps in front of the bar’s artfully decorated walls.
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