This is for the out-of-towners, the Manhattanites, the Brooklynites from up north, the visitors to the neighborhood. Walk past the trees lining Prospect Heights proper and pass Vanderbilt and Underhill streets until you reach the strip shops and restaurants undisturbed by the quaintness of gentrification known as Washington Ave. Head north.
The smattering of laundromats and Chinese greasy spoons are now punctuated by the occasional transplant from Park Slope. We have Bar Corvo on the left and Kim Chee Tacos on the right. Most of the transplants, as by their rights, are closed during the day, when their likely benefactors are in their air conditioned offices amongst the towers across the bridges. The street stays alive with the thrumming of its local residents - don’t worry.
Keep going until you pass a derelict Keys Food and a downtrodden Bank of America ATM vestibule — the end of Washington Avenue at these parts crumbles out suddenly. This is the edge of Crown Heights, where Caribbean and African and Jewish histories clatter and clash and burn into one another. But you are not here for history. No. Do not be alarmed. Yuppiedom is mere blocks away. The Brooklyn Museum is straight ahead, and can serve as a beacon of culture should you fret about the number of auto mechanic shops in the vicinity. Prospect Park is around the corner, splayed to the side of the Grand Army Plaza.
On the western side of Washington Ave, at its end, you’ll see The Islands. You’ll see that the windows are dark, the chairs are upturned on the small bar and the kitchen is silent. Walk directly to the door and look for the man. The man will be standing on the street, as if he was going to ask you for money, or for those who are imaginative, you may presume that he is there to provide you with barbiturates to sooth your anxieties. His face is very black. Angry, almost. Look a little closer. The Islands’ door — is it open? Is there a fan turning turning turning within? Does the man look busy? Does he acknowledge your existence?
Smile at the man. Don’t show your stupid grin - a polite smile is fine.This is the first step in your beseeching. If he approves the look of you, follow him inside. When he asks, “What will you have” — do not hesitate. Do not ask for a menu, or respond with “What do you have” or “What’s good here”. Follow the unspoken rule of places like the Islands all around the world. Just as you would behave in a far flung shack promising gastronomical wonders, where the days are hot and the nights are humid, when the man asks you what you want, what he expects of you is to know the tradition. He expects that you have come to such a place because you know what you want, that you have, through long searches and dedication, now understand what it is that you are seeking.
If you met Jesus walking down the road with his flock of lamb, and he asks you “What do you want” - do you hesitate? No, you ask him for the fucking meaning of life and why do good people suffer. Or the ability to fly.
If you answer the man with the correct answer - jerk chicken and rice please - prepare to be rewarded. Because while at nights The Islands come alive with the clinks of glasses and the sizzle of a full menu of dishes, the daytime is a special time. It’s a time for those in the know, for those who want to get early access to the pale imitation that later diners will get after long waits.
If he approves, the man will turn into the silent kitchen and fulfill your dreams. First, the base layer: a scoop of lightly sugared coconut rice touched by the grease of a thousand meals; a sprinkle of moist and rich beans; and a scoop of tart and sweet cabbage and vegetables.
Then, the hero layer: two delectable morsels of jerked chicken - spiced by the heavenly blend of pimento and cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, scallions and thyme and garlic and peppers and the rich history stretching from the shores of Jamaica and across the waves to the river Niger and the Araby coast. The man will lift the foil wrapping off a pot from which pieces of jerked chicken are enclosed. Trust your eyes. From the silent kitchen, the empty stoves and the funereal scene — yes, there is treasure here worth capturing. Keep cool as he measures your worth against the pieces he’ll choose with the tongs.
Finally, the sauce. Depending on who you are, the man will grant you a wondrous slather of rich spiced sauce that will keep the hero company in the foil treasure container that you, lucky visitor, can depart with. One scoop for normals. One and a half for saints. And two scoops? Who are you, visitor?
Don’t forget the plastic fork.
No knife? No spoon?
Of course not, you apostate. The chicken is so incredibly moist and tender that a simple plastic fork is enough to tease the succulent meat away from the bones. And the sauce is so thick with appreciation that the rice and beans and vegetables cling together in sweet embrace that no spoon is needed.
Once the exchange is done, depart. Quietly. The man will resume his post. The fan will whir on. The kitchen will dim and fall back to silence.
And you — you will have bent all rules of physics and geography to transport the scents and tastes and feels of Jamaica into your New York bubble. You will have reached into space and time, to fall under the spell of the hot sun and the hot chicken, and will have touched the sublime in one go.
Now just find a place to eat the chicken. I suggest the park.