The mid spring temperatures were in the 90s and the wind was a relentless torrent of dust and debris. It was the kind of day when I just wanted to hide from the harshness of what living in the Sonoran Desert can entail and find serenity with some comforting food and a snug chair. There are plenty of options on the restaurant trail of Campbell Avenue between Grant and Fort Lowell roads, but nothing seemed hidden or respite enough. That is, until a slightly secluded spot in a shopping strip lured me in because its initial appearance was both homespun and somehow a little curious.
Desert Island Eatery is unassuming but a little funky. The interior resembles somebody's getaway beach cottage that was transformed into a lovely cafe. Lively reggae music plays as the essence of Caribbean cooking circles its way around the few tables. There's a sign that reads: "Less House More Home." This must be the place. I escaped from the heat and the wind, took a seat and felt immediately at ease.
The bespectacled owner, Jamilla Joseph, handed me a menu and an ice-cold drink from Jamaica called Ting, which was bubbly and tasted of tart grapefruit. It was delicious. The menu is a collection of Caribbean island inspiration with a good balance between carnivorous and vegetarian.
Jamilla devises the recipes and dishes with help from her husband, Dex, who works in the back, making the restaurant smell so darn good.
Jamilla is the kind of knowing mother who knows what you want to eat just by looking at you. She wants you to eat what she would cook for her family, seeing as—temporarily—you are a member of the Joseph family. She brought out a cucumber salad ($3) that was alive with locally farmed tomatoes and red onions then finished with a vibrant pepper sauce, cooling me down while keeping me on my toes with a bit of spice. The curried chickpeas ($3), an island staple, was just simple enough, allowing the levels of flavor in the curry and the soft hue of the chickpeas to soothe me into more home-cooked Jamaican goodness.
Jamilla may have strong roots from the islands, but she is originally from Virginia, where she met Dex, who is from Jamaica. They came to Tucson while on their way to California and decided to stay when they found a business site to call their own: This one. They originally called it the Vapor Kitchen because they sold vaping accessories along with Caribbean influenced dishes, which, evidently, was a trying combination. After Jamilla had her first child, she toned down the concept to just food. The response, she told me, has been better than expected. Jamilla gets help and advice from her two stepchildren, who eat just about everything, and her vegan stepmother.
The family advisers must be culinary masters because each dish, meat focused or not, is a happy cruise to the Caribbean islands. The jerk chicken entrée ($12) immediately makes you feel as if dining in a oceanside cabana with its deep flavored marinade served alongside fluffy rice and, thankfully, fried plantains. Jamilla says that they don't always have plantains handy, so you're lucky when you get to eat them here. They are chewy and succulent. And you won't even miss the meat once you've discovered the curry tofu ($12), because it is so firm and flavorful that animal protein kind of seems like an unnecessary element. A word of advice: Get coleslaw on the side when you can. It is creamy, crunchy and sweetened with raisins.
Being a part of the Tucson food family, Jamilla and Dex have created jerk chicken burritos and quesadillas (both $10) that can easily compete with any fusion notion in this great culinary city of ours. Both are very delicious and very hearty. Even after all the eating, Jamilla brings out Johnny cakes ($3.50), which are basically a Jamaican take on a fried dumpling, topped with wonderfully spiced apples. Yum. Yes.
Desert Island Eatery was exactly what I needed to escape from it all in a home away from home. Before I left, Jamilla told me a seasonal menu is in the works, as is a liquor license, so she said I should come back when that happens. All that sounds great, but I'll be back long before then. ■