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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bickles Caribbean

Here's the scene, good reader: my buddy told me about his uncle's restaurant Bickles, so I rolled down to the Brownsville/East Flatbush border to check it out. Two things he didn't tell me? This joint is 1) tiny, and 2) extremely popular, especially on Friday nights. Think “size of standard Brooklyn Chinese takeout spot,” then divide by two. And add a long line winding outside. (And ignore that small table; it's decorative.) Still, why fret? Jamaican food was in our future, and The Porkchop Express was very hungry.
The block is hot: lining up for Bickles on a Friday night

One word before we get to the food. The name “Bickle” has nothing to do with Scorcese. It just means “food” in Patois. So when you think Bickles, think food. Not Taxi Driver. Now that we've cleared that up, what about the food? We started with old friend Jerk Chicken, a Jamaican standard traditionally sold roadside from large charcoal drums. Bickle's cooks theirs in the oven, but they still deliver the heat: spicy, moist, aromatic. One of their secrets is a fresh marinade imported from Jamaica, which gives it an extra dose of authenticity. Flavorful authenticity.Oxtail Stew is one of Bickles' most popular dishes, and we were lucky to get some before it sold out for the day. It was meatier than I had expected, nice thick slabs slowly stewed in a savory brown sauce with beans, pimento (allspice), thyme, and other good stuff. The result is a long-simmered, glistening sauce; very little water is added, so the flavors are thick and deep. If the word “gravy” turns you on, then this is your dish. (Note: the poultry version shares the name – Stew Chicken – but tastes quite different. It's a sharp, tangy cousin to savory, mellow oxtail.)Bickles takes a lot of pride in their seafood, and it shows. Our favorite dish was probably the Escovitch Crocker, a whole whitefish quickly fried then set to marinate in a spicy vinegar sauce stocked with onions, thyme, pimento, peppers and carrots. The flavors are clean, assertive and hot, chock full of blazing Jamaican Scotch Bonnets. You can eat it at room temperature but we loved it fresh from the fry-pan, when the fish releases that spicy vinegar aroma that sends both eyes and mouths watering.
Escovitch sauce (l); and Red Snapper, frying...
...and good to go

If you want to join the seafood party but prefer a milder style, dip into the Brown Stew Snapper. (Again, this is a different sauce from the Stew Oxtail, Chicken, etc.) Bickles simmers some of their Escovitch vinegar with veggies and spices to bring it “to gravy.” After the flavors have melded and the sauce has thickened, they add the main event: a seasoned, quick-fried Red Snapper, which finishes cooking in the stew.
Wadsworth Reynolds, attempting to explain the mysteries of seamoss

One last thing to note: do not miss the unassuming fridge stocked with homemade beverages. Start with Bickle's Sorrel, a deep purple sweet-and-tart elixir made from boiled hibiscus flowers. But if you want to get sexified later, consider the Sea Moss instead. This is a unique beverage (to say the least): something like the root of a tree washed ashore, then boiled into a gummy liquid. A very gummy liquid. As Wads put it, “it doesn't have the best taste, but... it's useful.” So if you're in the market for an all-natural alternative to Vitamin V, look no further.
There you have it, good reader: an unassuming local spot chock-full of island flavor. Bickles may look like one of any number of Church Avenue spots, but appearances deceive. Step inside and you'll discover half a dozen workers, prepping and cooking in a very tight kitchen for a steady stream of regulars. It's quite a production, and quite a tightly-run ship.
Michael Owens, talking bickle

The captain, as it were, is one Michael Owens of Mandeville, Jamaica, a professional chef for about 15 years who honed his cooking skills on the East Flatbush Caribbean circuit. His final stint came at Susie Wong's local Jamaican spot. When she decided to sell in 1998, Michael was ready to buy. He re-opened under the name Bickles, and began serving classic Jamaican eats he hoped folks would appreciate.They did, and do. Michael's formula of quality, freshness, and reasonable prices has established Bickles as an important part of the neighborhood landscape. A very large Caribbean neighborhood, I might add. Which is one reason why they make so few overtures to eat-in customers. As with most spots in these parts, Bickles cater to locals who buy meals on the go, or take food back for their families. In that way, the East Flatbush scene reminds me of the Polish spots in Greenpoint: it caters to a relatively self-contained community, offering traditional food to hardworking people who want to go home and kick back with a taste of the old Island.

Not that you shouldn't make the jaunt if you don't live nearby. Just take the lead of one young Jamaican woman whom I spoke with in line. She rode the 3 train from the boogie down Bronx just to bring home tins of Bickles' Snapper, rice and peas, Oxtail, and Curry Goat. And why did she make that trek? The same reason we do every week, good reader: all in the name of delicious.

Bickles Caribbean & American Restaurant
9407 Church Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
Open 7 Days
(718) 342-1543

Fish dishes run $12. The meat dishes (Jerk Chicken, Oxtail and Curry Goat) cost around $8. Both are served with rice and peas, fried plantains, and salad.



Blogger Anne said...

This sounds amazing. Is the fish you refer to known as a "croker," as opposed to a "crocker"? Am I wrong? I would be curious to know. I am unfamiliar with a fish known as a crocker. Do share if you know. This is a damn fine blog you have. Thank you!

12:23 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

hey anne, tks for stopping by... so yeah, "crocker" = "croker" = "croaker"... different spellings, same pronunciation, same small mild whitefish. takes to the sauce quite well. & bickles brings the heat with those pickled veggies too... enjoy!

9:57 AM  

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