CINCINNATI - Our Thursday column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Where: 2826 Vine St, Cincinnati
Food: Home-style Jamaican food
Prices: Combo meals/Dinners: $6.99-$15.00
Taste the flavor of Jamaica right here on Short Vine, in Cincinnati. Island Frydays offers salads, sandwiches, wraps and dinners--fully spiced in the Jamaican tradition. Dial up or down the spiciness of the food as you like.
The jerk chicken dinner, sandwiches and wraps are sure bets. The goat curry and oxtail stew are slow-braised for more than three hours with Jamaican spice blends. The oxtail and goat meat also are halal (prepared according to Islamic guidelines), and with a little extra preparation time, Island Frydays will accommodate additional halal requests.
Seafood is a mainstay here, with choices like escovitch snapper and Caribbean garlic shrimp. The sweet plantains (pictured above), served with the dinners and combos, are also a favorite with the customers. The restaurant recently introduced the wildly popular jerk fries, which are served with the combo meals, or as a side.
There are options for vegetarians too, such as the callaloo meal, which has the main ingredient of leafy greens.
Meet the chef and owner
Leighton Morgan has come a long way since he fashioned a toy truck from a milk carton and beer caps.
"As a child, one of my first toys was a truck I made from a milk box with beer bottle caps as wheels," Morgan recalled. "I pulled it around and made beeping noises like it was a truck."
Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Morgan remembers his roots well.
"I know what it feels like to have nothing," he said.
Today, he is the proud chef and owner of Island Frydays. His road to entrepreneurial success took several turns before scoring a touchdown not far from the University of Cincinnati campus.
When Morgan was 13, his father brought him to Connecticut for a better life.
"It was cold, and I didn't want to be there. America is the flag in the sky for opportunity, but I rebelled," Morgan said.
So his father sent him back to Jamaica. "I got deported by my father," Morgan said.
Things got rough in Jamaica. According to Morgan, he was not going to school and hung out with the wrong crowd. Finally, Morgan's aunt talked his father into taking him back.
"I came back to Connecticut three years later, and I was in eighth grade," he said. Morgan, who had grown up with cricket and soccer, witnessed something at the ball ground one day that he did not understand.
"I saw people tackling each other, and I said, 'Wow, how do you get away with that," he recalled.
That sight was Morgan's initiation into American football. He ultimately joined the Bloomfield High School football team.
"We were the state champions five times. I lost one game, and tied one in high school," Morgan recounted. "I was one of the premier middle linebackers in the nation, and got scholarship offers to Iowa, Florida, Connecticut, and Cincinnati."
Morgan conceded he was not as focused on school as he should have been. His SAT scores did not meet entrance requirements for the big schools, so he detoured to Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania where he continued playing football while pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice.
"I was the number one outside linebacker in the nation," Morgan said. Then, he got a full football scholarship to the University of Cincinnati.
Morgan, who had always liked to cook, would treat his friends to his culinary creations.
"I cooked one Christmas, and asked my teammates if they would pay for this stuff," Morgan recalled. He got a resounding, "Yes." He lightheartedly proclaimed every Friday to be "Island Frydays," and even told his teammates, "If football doesn't work out, we're going to be chefs at Island Frydays."
After graduation, Morgan pursued his entrepreneurial hunch. He mustered the money he had saved in college and started Island Frydays in 2009.
"Our food is bursting with flavor. There is a lot of habanero peppers, pimento, and a lot of green onions. We use a lot of vegetables," Morgan said. He described his food as "home-cooked, traditional southern island food." Morgan's birthplace, Clarendon, is located on the south coast of Jamaica.
Morgan explained that while the food is spicy, it can be toned down with the use of carrot and vinegar.
"But if you are about spicy, we can give you the Jamaican kick as well," he added with a smile.
Onion, garlic, and ginger are also big elements in the cuisine. Morgan (pictured above with staff) mentioned that ginger soothes the stomach, and has included ginger tea is on the menu as well. He imports spices like pimento (allspice) from Jamaica.
Morgan is a little surprised that the oxtail and goat dishes have been as popular as they are. The restaurant
cooks up 40 pounds of oxtail a day and still runs out. According to Morgan, meat is never frozen at Island Frydays, and everything is made fresh daily.
"Jamaican food brings me happiness. It reminds me where I'm from," Morgan said. "The magical flavor is love."
By the way
Morgan's creed of " This is not just all for me," shines through in his outreach to the homeless. He and his staff have been known to go downtown and pass food out to the homeless.
"If I see the homeless on Short Vine, I'd go out and ask if they have eaten. If not, I just ask them to come on in," Morgan said. Interestingly enough, Morgan said the homeless have become ambassadors for his restaurant.
"They walk people down the street and tell them to come to this place and eat," he smiled.
(Photos by G. Yek)