Island beat

Gwen’s Caribbean Cuisine

2355 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 922-3468

I’ve never been a particularly island-oriented vacationer. For one thing, I hate the feeling of sand sticking to my skin after it dries. For another, humidity is my mortal enemy. Thus, a Caribbean vacation has never seriously tempted me, aside from the occasional idle and fleeting dream of sipping a fruity cocktail while gazing at the turquoise sea. Then I think of how the sand would be all gritty, however idyllically soft and white it looks in the travel brochure, and I decide to save my money.

However, it’s just possible that I could find a reason to head to the tropics: tasty Caribbean food. That may not be necessary, however, because I recently spotted Gwen’s Caribbean Cuisine on Arden Way. Located at the back of an unpromising strip mall east of Howe Avenue, this restaurant isn’t long on atmosphere, but the food has the gentle flair that I imagine one might find on a particularly successful beach vacation.

The big space Gwen’s occupies used to be an Indian restaurant, and traces of its past remain in cut-out alcoves along the walls. The walls have been painted in a 1980s-ish shade of bright peach with minty green trim and hung with a few pictures featuring palm trees and the like, but otherwise the room feels curiously bare and a little cavernous. On the night we were there, however, a large party had taken over a big central table, evidently made by pushing together a lot of the room’s smaller tables, so that might account for the apparent sparseness of the furnishings.

Happily, the menu has more to offer than the décor. It’s divided into sections of Caribbean and American food. We ignored the latter and went straight to the former, where the choices were far more interesting, varying from curried goat to oxtail stew to jerk chicken. There was also a buffet at the back of the restaurant, as our server (also apparently the owner) told us—just $12 for an all-you-can-eat array of salad, steam-table trays of some of the menu choices, and sides. I decided to check out the buffet’s offerings, while my husband (for once less hungry than I) went for a straightforward order of shrimp Creole off the menu.

Meanwhile, we were a little perplexed by the drink offerings. I got a ginger beer, advertised on the menu as being homemade, that came in a bottle and clearly was labeled as being made in Canada. It was nonetheless spicy and refreshing. My husband ordered a pineapple soda that turned out to be a disconcerting shade of Day-Glo yellow. The menu offered beer (including Jamaican Red Stripe) and wine, but people at a couple of tables were sipping what appeared to be fruity tropical cocktails, as well, which I couldn’t find on the menu.

The buffet, meanwhile, beckoned. The salad was unremarkable but crisp and fresh. The server nicely offered to let my husband get a buffet salad, too, so he would get something to eat while we waited for his entree. We ended up sharing my salad, but it was a gracious gesture. Hot, yeasty, slightly sweet dinner rolls arrived at the table in the meantime, so he also snacked on those as I filled up my plate at the buffet.

There were three choices, all also listed individually on the menu: jerk chicken, chicken curry and escovitch fish. The latter (more familiar to me under the spelling escabèche) was colorful, intriguing and very tasty: a rustic tray of fried fish pieces, skin-on and with all the bones, with a slightly vinegary, garlicky sauce and a smothering of just-crunchy sliced onions and red peppers. It reminded me, in an entirely pleasant way, of the fry-ups of fresh-caught brook trout we used to have on family camping trips. The tender flesh of the fish was well worth picking around the sharp bones for, and the softened, floury coating on the fish packed a lot of flavor.

I also loved the hot, dark, allspice-redolent jerk chicken wings and the bone-in chicken curry, with its mild, dusky flavor of turmeric. We both had sides of delicious, richly coconutty rice dotted with red beans and fried plantains. Neither of us are big fans of the banana family generally, but the plantains were excellent. My husband’s shrimp Creole had a tasty tomato-cream sauce that he loved, though I thought the shrimp themselves were a trifle overcooked.

We took our time with the meal, intrigued by what seemed to be calypso versions of older pop tunes playing in the restaurant. We identified “We Are the World” but had trouble with many of the others. No dessert was offered, and the check came as our plates were cleared, so I take it Gwen’s doesn’t offer sweets. The buffet, however, is plenty filling and also available at lunch. I’d like to go back and try some of the other specialties. Perhaps fall would be the best time for oxtail stew, but the other offerings should be just right for the hot summer ahead. Maybe next time I’ll figure out how to get a fruity cocktail, and I can pretend I’ve finally made it to the Caribbean.