Your happy place

Good vibes and exciting flavors of Jamaica at Sipho’s

Sipho’s jerk chicken falls off the bone.

Sipho’s jerk chicken falls off the bone.

Photo By matt siracusa

Sipho’s Restaurant & Cafe

1228 Dayton Rd.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 895-1866

Sipho’s Restaurant & Café’s jerk chicken is about as far as one can get from a Chicken McNugget. It is unprocessed, unbreaded, bone-in, flavored and fragrant with jerk spices, and so smokily, mouthwateringly delicious that it puts to shame all fast-food pretenders. I found out this welcome news recently when I went to Sipho’s (pronounced “seepoes”)the new Jamaican restaurant on the edge of townfor lunch.

But I had a sneaking suspicion that such would be the case, since I had eaten dinner at Sipho’s with my family the previous week, and the food was delightful, as was the ambiance.

Housed in the former building of Sharon’s Cookhouse (and Wasney’s Barbecue before that), the location has been thoroughly renovated, inside and out, since the new owner, Jamaica-via-Los-Angeles transplant Newton “Sipho” Merritt, took over. A look through the photo album on hand at Sipho’s reveals the extent to which Sipho stripped down the restaurant and built it back up to be comfortable and cheery, from the dining room to the patio (both the inviting covered section and the open-air area boasting a rock garden and waterfall).

I’ll start with our dinner: My honey, David, ordered the Brown Stewed Chicken ($11.75 for a full order, which is what he chose, and $7.50 for a half)—chicken marinated in an onion, sweet-pepper and tomato sauce, with fried plantains, avocado, green salad, and either white rice or Jamaican “rice and peas” (rice cooked in coconut milk, dotted with kidney beans—David’s choice). My 10-year-old daughter, Lydia, got a half order of curried goat ($8.25), and I opted for a half order of Eskovitch fish ($8.25).

Newton “Sipho” Merritt tends to his restaurant’s patio gardens.

Photo By matt siracusa

David’s chicken was flavorful, tender and juicy. As the menu advises, many of Sipho’s dishes have bones in them, and the Brown Stewed Chicken was one of those (as were our goat and fish dishes). But, picking out bones is actually kind of fun, in a rustic, Old World way that reminded me of eating dinners prepared by my late German father.

The goat (which came with fried plantains, avocado, and rice and peas) was the most labor-intensive of the three dishes in terms of bone-removal, but was divinely yummy, with curry kick. My fish was also lovely, as were the sautéed, slightly pickled-tasting veggies smothering it. My glass of fresh ginger lemonade ($3) was a refreshing accompaniment.

On that second, lunchtime visit, I sat at the granite-topped counter my family and I dined at previously, and looked out through a row of windows onto the lovely rock garden and waterfall in the outdoor-patio area. Besides a half-order of jerk chicken, I also ordered a half-order of curried tofu ($6.25; $9.50, full) from my server, Sipho’s charming daughter, Sa’uda Merritt, who is out from Miami to help her father run the restaurant for a while.

The chicken was so tender, it practically fell from the bone; the flavor and aroma were so good that I picked every last bit of meat I could off the bones. My tofu—cooked with broccoli, cauliflower and carrots in a deep-yellow coconut-milk/curry sauce that matched the invitingly painted interior walls of the restaurant, and was augmented with plantain, avocado, salad, and rice and peas—was also delicious. Add in the joyous reggae music from Sipho’s sound system, the uplifting visuals of Bob Marley and other Jamaicans hanging on the walls, and the butterflies, bees and birds darting in and out of the flowers in the rock garden, and my lunch was a happy experience for all of my senses.

On my way out, via the patio, I had the pleasure of meeting Sipho himself—a bright-eyed, ageless-looking man (who happens to be reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s nephew) who effuses graciousness and warmth. He told me how he comes out into the patio garden early each morning, lights incense, and waters and talks to his plants.

“Every time you come here, find me and say hello,” Sipho told me.

I most certainly will.