The second I saw the Pan-Cart, Inc. logo -- a modified red, green, and yellow barrel grill affixed to a large hand cart -- I knew this was going to be some good food. I saw the business's sandwich board sign as I looked for parking near its East Main Street building, which is in the same neighborhood as La Olla Criolla. I didn't even get through Pan-Cart's vestibule before being enveloped in the scents of curry and jerk seasoning and sweet plantains stewing in their respective pans, waiting for a customer to choose them.
As soon as I entered, an older gentleman greeted me with a big smile and a hello. The space is small, but there is room for two four-seater tables, a drink fridge, and a large screen TV affixed to the wall that was playing news, but I would wager it plays some good football (sorry: "soccer)" matches when scheduled. Pan-Cart reminds me of the Jamaican joints I would frequent in Queens and in West Baltimore: cozy, perfect spots for getting a big take-away order for a decent price, but where the door is always open to sit and chat with whoever is in the dining area, be it employee or patron.
From behind the counter, owner Blake Stewart paused working on seasoning some ribs to greet me and take my order. He stood tall and proud in his black polo shirt that was highlighted with two bold congruent yellow and green stripes (the colors of the Jamaican Flag) going across the left side of the trunk.
The name "Pan-Cart" comes from the hand carts that are a common sight in Jamaica. People use them all the time for transporting their wares and they would be modified accordingly -- even Stewart had one as a child. Some toted a barrel grill, and merchants sold prepared food straight off the grill. So the Pan-Cart logo is both nostalgia for Jamaica and the promise of simple, good food for Rochesterians.
I didn't take much time determining what I wanted. That curry that I'd been smelling was calling me, but I still browsed the menu just in case something else popped out. This may be shallow of me, but I tend to judge my neighborhood take-away spot by whether they have a white board menu, which Pan-Cart has. Though they have an extensive printed menu, Stewart ensures that everything in print is also written out neatly on the board, along with any specials. The joy of this is seeing what has been scratched out due to selling out, which is a reminder that next time I'd best come early to get that higher-demand item.
Fortunately, the meal I wanted was still available: a medium-sized box of curry chicken with rice and beans, steamed cabbage, plantains, and a dumpling on the side ($10). How he packed so much food into a medium box is beyond me, but I am not complaining.
The chicken was so tender, even the grizzle nearly melted in my mouth. I made short work of it and the rice, and the dumpling was a perfect way to sop up the remaining stew from my nearly empty box. Tearing into my meal brought me back to my college days when we would pick up a box from the Jamaican shop for "thought fuel" on our way to group all-night cramming session for our engineering projects that were due at the crack of dawn. That food was a stress reliever, as is Pan-Cart's.
The key to making the chicken so tender and full of flavor is marinating it in the curry seasoning for at least two days, Stewart informed me. When cooking it, he thickens the gravy with potato so that it doesn't get too soupy. Even the ribs he was seasoning as I entered will be allowed to marinate a while before they are ready to cook. Stewart said that though he was seasoning the ribs, his parents, primarily his mother does the bulk of the cooking. He is a gatherer of the supplies, he says. And the man who greeted me in the dining area was his father. This is a family business through and through, with family recipes blessing us. I look forward to trying some of the fish dishes, as they are prepared in a similar way, and by the looks of the images on the menu, Stewart's idea of a "fillet" is my idea of a slab. I can sign onto that.
Though this Main Street location for Pan-Cart opened in March 2018, it started as booths and tables at the Webster Market and then at the EMMA community center on Main Street. Stewart got the idea for starting the business from his upbringing and wanting to share food with the community. He spent his early life in southern Jamaica, in Clarendon Parish, where he lived on a farm and was used to having big meals with his family, rich with hearty root vegetables, fruits, and the freshest meats. When Stewart and his parents moved to Rochester to start a new life with his extended family, he still cherished that fresh, farm-to-table cuisine, with his ingredients coming directly from their sources to his restaurant. Stewart says his next goal is to diversify his menu even more, and provide more vegan and vegetarian options to the public.