"Never touch your eyes," Melvin Smith warns as he slices a mountain of orange and red Scotch bonnet peppers on a cutting board in his sweltering South Miami-Dade kitchen. The 59-year-old co-owner of Sango Jamaican & Chinese is tall with a shaved head and the wrinkly face of an English bulldog. He wears an orange polo, the same color as the fiery specimens he's hacking to pieces. And despite the jolts of pain they deliver through every sliver and cut on his gnarled fingers, Smith smiles as he prepares the curried goat stew he learned to make growing up at grandmother's side in central Jamaica's Mandeville.
After he dispatches the peppers, the chef — who's nicknamed Bunny — moves on to a bunch of scallions as thick as his forearm. He chops them into rough spears and then, along with the peppers, tosses them into a wide metal bowl holding a heap of thumb-size hunks of goat meat. He dusts it with a thick layer of forest-green curry powder, salts it, and leaves it to marinate. Later, Bunny returns to sear a crust onto the meat before submerging it in water and leaving it to braise into tender, fatty shreds.
What comes next is almost as painful as the peppers. As the liquid simmers, it emits a smell that seems a combination of body odor, burnt hair, and the sulfuric stink of overcooked eggs. Left to boil in a remote corner of the kitchen, far from the place's yellow-green dining room, cooks avoid it like a medieval leper. But once finished, the stew sports a glossy emerald-green sauce packed with spice, oniony sweetness, and the fragrance of cumin and coriander. The goat meat needs only a slight push with the side of a fork to collapse into rich shreds.
For more than two decades, Bunny has served goat curry, oxtail, cow foot stew, and Chinese-Jamaican specialities such as sweet roasted pork shoulder in this taupe strip mall off South Dixie Highway just west of Palmetto Bay. The red-roofed shopping center is the Miami area's premier place to gobble up Caribbean chow. Two doors down from Sango is Caribbean Delite, a long-standing spot for West Indian cuisine. A bit farther down is Marie Patties, a decades-old bakery that dishes out some of the city's best Jamaican turnovers. The place was built in the later 1980s by the now-deceased Jamaican developer Barry Hannah.
"This is the heart of Caribbean Miami," Bunny says in a thick accent.
Miami has been a Caribbean city far longer than it's been American. After Spanish colonists dispatched with the native Tequesta through battle and illness, Bahamians and runaway slaves made their way here. The Bahamians helped build Coconut Grove's Peacock Inn, according to local historians. They made up a sizable portion of Miami's population around the time the city was incorporated in 1896. As the decades passed, wave after wave of Caribbean immigrants followed. There were of course Cubans and then, in the 1970s and '80s, thousands of Haitian immigrants fleeing dictators François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier. Political upheavals in Jamaica in the '70s brought more from that island. Dominicans and Puerto Ricans also landed here. Between the mid-'60s and the early '80s, tens of thousands of Trinidadians left their homeland seeking a better life, particularly during the later years when plummeting oil prices sent the island nation's economy into depression.
"There are still no jobs there," Terry Sobrian says while sitting inside Caribbean Delite while waiting for his shrimp roti. The heavyset environmental inspector, who was born in Trinidad, wears a blue button-up work shirt and a glittering key ring that jingles with every step. For nearly a decade, he has purchased lunches from this lime-green storefront filled with coconut candies, bags of curry powder, and bright portraits of Hindu gods, hinting at India's heavy influence on Trinidad and Tobago. That shrimp dish — a blend of the tender crustaceans with steamy potatoes all rubbed in a thick, curry-infused sauce packed into a stretchy kind of tortilla made with chickpea flour — is why he stops in every time he passes.
"There are other Trini places up north, but they have the best roti in Dade County," Sobrian says of Caribbean Delite.
Other days, he opts for the sandwich called bake and shark. An airy, crusty roll with the slight crunch and sweetness of a freshly fried doughnut is jammed with nuggets of crisp shark meat glazed in a ripping-hot pepper sauce sweetened with tamarind.
He also orders what's called a double — a highly addictive street food that's a popular breakfast on the island. Slices of the fluffy fried flatbread called bara, stained yellow with turmeric, are filled with curried chickpeas similar to India's chana masala. Caribbean Delite's garbanzos are hearty and sweet, but hit them with a dash of pepper sauce from the unmarked orange bottle sitting on the counter. It will seem like a beam of light shining down on you. Trinis began calling the dish a double after they started asking for two rounds of bara to get them through the day.
At lunch, the vegetarian theme can continue with a pumpkin paratha, although there is also goat, beef, and chicken. A heap of the burnt-orange purée's natural sugars are set afire by chilies and cumin. It comes with paratha — a wide, flaky flatbread that originated in India and is ubiquitous in Trinidad — ready to be torn and dipped in whatever curry-laced stew suits you.
That same mashup of people, culture, and cuisine is at the heart of Marie Patties, just two doors away. Here, Elaine Chinloy and her two brothers bake Jamaican turnovers every day. Elaine, whose middle name is Marie, won't say how many she sells, calling it a trade secret — but judging by the people streaming in and out, the number must climb into the hundreds. Order a regular one, with a beefy mound of ground meat wrapped in a flaky crust, or get it spicy and let your eyes water.
Elaine's grandparents ended up Kingston, Jamaica, after leaving impoverished southeastern China and slowly making their way east via Singapore and Hawaii. Short jobs at each port of call helped keep them afloat and funded the next leg of their trip. In Jamaica and later, when they moved to Miami to escape the violence and political upheaval of the late '70s, they came up with a patty based on recipes from Chinloy's aunt Lee Fong and cousin Joyce Chin.
Chinloy offers few details about it. There's only a cluck and high-pitched laugh when she's probed for her secrets. After some pressing, she admits her patties are baked. "It's what makes the crusts light and flaky," she says.
The recipes Bunny at Sango uses have also worked their way through the generations. After his parents left Jamaica for the United Kingdom to work and send their earnings home, his grandmother Aneta Manning raised him and his six siblings. It's her recipe that spins out of his kitchen every Friday, when the place serves cow foot stew. The sticky, gelatinous hunks of sinew and fat are glazed in a sauce so smooth and deeply flavored it could be a French demi-glace. Bunny often made the same dish to feed his brothers and sisters. This gave him the chops to land a job cooking in a Mandeville hotel when he was 16 years old.
There, Jeannie Chung, a stern Chinese-Jamaican chef, taught him how to make the sweet crimson-tinged roasted pork that Sango now sells. The stuff also makes it into a stir-fry called choy fan littered with scallion ringlets and egg-roll stumps.
The Chinese-Jamaican dishes are like a hidden bonus track, waiting for you long after what you thought was the album's final song. You try them, and then you know the whole experience — Sango, Caribbean Delite, and Marie Patties — has been worth it. So you start all over again.
Sango Jamaican & Chinese
9485 SW 160th St., Miami; 305-252-0279. Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Curried goat $10.25
Cow foot stew $10
Roast pork $10
Codfish fritter $2.50
9491 SW 160th St., Miami; 305-254-6606. Monday through Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Shrimp roti $12
Bake and shark $12
Pumpkin paratha $11
9493 SW 160th St., Miami; 305-251-0910. Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jamaican patty $2.40
Spicy Jamaican patty $2.40
Saltfish and spinach loaf $3