A little bit of Kingston

‘The gift’ of Sipho’s, Chico’s Caribbean oasis

Sipho’s was lively during Chico State’s grad weekend.

Sipho’s was lively during Chico State’s grad weekend.

Photo by John Domogma

Sipho’s Restaurant & Cafe
1228 Dayton Road
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-close

Sometimes the restaurant thing isn’t about eating.

Sipho’s is the Jamaican restaurant where Wasney’s steakhouse used to be. I grew up on Wasney’s, and I’ve felt a surge of good will toward every restaurant that has occupied the space since. Most of them have been small ethnic spots that are allergic to advertising and are helmed by two people, one behind the grill and the other waiting tables. Sipho’s has been in that role for the past five years. The eatery has a booth at the Thursday Night Market, which is a nice intro to the food but can’t match the real thing.

It’s impossible to not love this place. It isn’t faux Jamaican or American Jamaican—it’s a real jerk shack, levitated from Kingston and dropped improbably down in our town. The building is painted in bright yellow, green and red, like a giant Jamaican flag. Inside, reggae music plays unobtrusively. Sit in the covered patio or the garden. You’re surrounded by reed cloth, bamboo and ginger plants. Ceiling fans turn lazily. You’re cut off from the street here, in a little Caribbean oasis. There’s a performance stage for the reggae bands that come through town—get on Sipho’s mailing list to be alerted when the next one is due. I can’t wait to experience that gig.

The pace is relaxed, as is inevitable when there’s a staff of two. My waitress was Guilena, from Angola. She couldn’t have been more pleasant. But the star of the show is Newton “Sipho” Merritt, the owner and cook. He’s a Jamaican Rastaman and the nephew of Jimmy Cliff. He was trained by the legendary Kyso, the master chef who cooked for Bob Marley and everyone else. Sipho got his name when he went to Africa and met a Zulu woman who had lost her child. He offered himself in his place, and asked her to name him. She dubbed him Sipho, “the gift.” See, we’re way beyond food here.

About the food: It has its downsides. For one, it’s expensive by ethnic food shack standards. My sampler plate (admittedly, a handsome portion) cost me $26 with dessert, no drinks, and tax. Most entrees run $10-$16 (half-orders available for some). Second, the signature dish is jerk, and it’s hot.

There are two levels of hot in restaurants that serve hot cuisines. Level 1 is when you say, “How hot is the X?,” and the server says, “Not hot.” That food will be very hot. Level 2 is when the server says, “It’s not really hot.” That food will be volcanic, nuclear-meltdown hot. Sipho’s jerk is Level 2.

I knew this about the jerk, so I told Guilena, “I don’t like hot—how hot is the jerk?” (testing her). She said if I didn’t want it hot she’d have Sipho make it not-hot. I bit. The jerk was perhaps a notch cooler than usual—8 out of 10—but it was too much for me.

Separate from heat, the flavors of Sipho’s meats are wonderful. I had the ox tail (heat level 0) and the curry chicken (5 out of 10) along with the jerk on a sampler plate, and each had a sauce that was distinct, bright and full of snap. So if you like heat, go for the jerk; if you don’t, go for the ox tail, the ital stew (veggie but hearty) or the “brown stewed chicken,” which they were out of but Guilena swore was “not hot” (see disclaimer above).

Beyond the meat dishes, I had issues with everything. The salad is classic plate fill: mostly iceberg and shaved carrots with bottled dressing. The rice was a little cold and old. The plantains, which are included as an appetizer with all entrees, were hard, dry slices of fried banana with salt and a garnish of shredded carrot. The one interesting drink, Sorrel, is basically Mexican jamaica (hibiscus) with the ginger factor cranked to 11.

But I still love the place. Talk to Sipho and you’ll love it, too. I asked him what the theme of the restaurant was, and he said, “With love.” Ditto.