During our seemingly endless winter, I looked forward to some Jamaican food to nourish my soul and brighten my spirits. Natural Vibes Jerk Hut II, which opened in 2012, is an offshoot of the original Natural Vibes, now at 975 Chili Avenue in Rochester's 19th Ward. This one, in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood, serves up authentic Jamaican cuisine inside a brightly-decorated, retrofitted home.
Buoyant yellow and green décor — representing the predominant colors of the Jamaican flag — and a few framed paintings of Bob Marley greet diners as they enter Natural Vibes. Reggae and soca pulse from the restaurant's sound system. The restaurant, which seems to do most of its business in the takeout realm, has three booths, four tables, and a counter at which to eat. Each time I visited Natural Vibes, however, nobody else was eating in, but a steady stream of people passed through for takeout orders.
Ordering takes place at the counter. The menu varies slightly from day to day, so there are no printed menus, but rather a hand-notated whiteboard on the wall lists the day's offerings. Admirably, Natural Vibes prides itself on freshness, and as a small business, it understandably doesn't like food left over at the end of the day. Consequently, it sometimes runs out of menu items. The menu expands for the Thursday-Friday-Saturday crowd, when Natural Vibes does the bulk of its business.
I was unaware of the menu variability when I paid my first visit on a Monday night, yet there was still plenty for my friend and I to sample. Of all of Natural Vibes' dishes, oxtail and goat are most uncommon on Rochester menus, but I learned that goat is typically only available on weekends, so I immediately planned my next visit.
The oxtail ($12.99 small or $15.15 large) is braised "with natural and authentic [imported] Jamaican herbs and spices," says the man who cooks it, Robert, who likes to go by Ziggy. "We cook with love so you can taste the natural herbs and spices." Meltingly tender, and with a deep, rich flavor, and silky mouthfeel due to its fat content, the oxtail requires a bit of patience to savor in order to extract all the meat surrounding the bone. Based on my observations of others ordering, the oxtail seemed the most in-demand item on the menu.
The curried chicken (thighs) dish ($9.74 small or $11.91 large), has a subtle and delicate Jamaican-style curry flavor, and like the oxtail, is fall-off-the-bone tender. The star of this evening's show, however, was the jerk chicken ($9.74 small, or $11.91 large). Rubbed down with Jamaican spices and allowed to marinate for 24 hours, the chicken is then seasoned again before cooking (baked when the weather is cold, but grilled outdoors in warmer weather). The jerk chicken was intensely flavored and spicy, though not fiery (a side of jerk sauce pumps up that volume), with balanced moistness and firmness. The jerk chicken entree consists of breast, thigh, and wing portions.
All entrees come with a choice of two sides, and each time I visited, the choices were white rice, the Jamaican staple of rice and peas — to Americans, these are beans, as they are usually one legume or another — and cabbage. The rice and peas, faintly aromatic of allspice, had expertly cooked rice with firm-tender pigeon peas. But the cabbage was the standout side dish: steamed and with a texture akin to sauerkraut, the cabbage also contained crunchy peas, carrots, and green beans. Sadly, each time I visited — the second on a Saturday afternoon — fried plantains were not available. I had also hoped to sample some of Ziggy's homemade carrot cake for dessert, but this too was absent. Natural Vibes offers Caribbean soft drinks, such as ginger beer, pineapple soda, Ting grapefruit soda, and Kola Champagne (which resembles cream soda), as well as fresh juices, like sorrel-ginger, pineapple-ginger, and beet root.
On my second visit to Natural Vibes I had high hopes for curried goat, but it was not meant to be: the wholesaler that supplies Natural Vibes had no goat to sell that week. Of the choices I had — brown stew fish, red snapper, tilapia, and peppersteak — I opted for the peppersteak. While enjoyable, and accented by onions, carrots, sweet peppers, and potatoes — and like all their meats, exceedingly tender — the peppersteak had a somewhat undistinguished essence and flavor.
I think Natural Vibes could help itself by providing those who work outside the kitchen with a little more knowledge about its dishes. I can't, however, find any fault with the kindness or hospitality of anyone who works there. They work hard to please. To point, on the first visit, they brought us a small complimentary bowl of their brown stew chicken ($9.74 small or 11.91 large) just "because it was the only meat you didn't try." The stew, with carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce, thyme, and onions, was slightly sweet in a raisiny or tamarindy way. Yes, I'm disappointed that I still have not tasted their curried goat or fried plantains, but that's another reason to return (but I'll call first).