One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed about Reading’s restaurant scene since I’ve been running Explore Reading, apart from our proliferation of chains, and the difficulty our indie businesses face in a tough food market (not made easier by high business rates and planning permission decisions), is our relative lack of Caribbean restaurants.
It’s an often quoted stat that Reading has the largest Bajan population outside of Barbados. We have a thriving Caribbean community and a vibrant annual carnival, but currently only two permanent Caribbean restaurants, not counting market stalls. Perry’s, the marvellously gritty lunchtime stop opposite Honest Burgers, serves up whopping plates of jerk chicken and curried mutton on metal tables, but shuts before dinner really gets going. Oxford Road’s Season’s is basically a takeaway counter with a door and its Cemetery Junction branch recently closed. Possibly Sam’s Wraps gets a nod in there too for their Caribbean wraps, but, well the answer’s in the name with that one, isn’t it?
Much is made of how diverse Reading is, but where is our thriving food culture that reflects this community? A quick (and admittedly unscientific) Google tells me that Brixton has over 20 Caribbean restaurants, takeaways and pop ups, with a Caribbean population roughly double the size of Reading’s. Surely that means we should have around ten eateries lining our streets. So, where are they all?
Well, joining that list, we now we have Vibes Caribbean, who last month opened in the former Bhoj Indian restaurant spot at that oddly windy parade behind the Hexagon, next to Pepe Sale, Sushimania and Bierhaus. It’s a slightly more formal, family-run, dine-in restaurant set up by the mother and head chef, who’s originally from Jamaica. They’ve apparently got over 20 members of their extended family working there in some way, although I only spotted around three or four staff bustling around on my visit. It was clear from their ease and interaction though that they’re all family.
The menu is pretty much as you’d expect from a Caribbean restaurant: mutton curry, jerk chicken cooked on a traditional oil drum, plantains and rice and peas.
Unlike my previous reviews, where I’ve eaten in for dinner, I opted to visit Vibes for lunch, after seeing their lunchtime special on their website. £6.95 gets you any main and two sides, or it’s £9.95 for a large. Compare that to regular mains with sides at dinner going up to £13.95, lunch seemed the best value way to test out the menu.
On my Wednesday visit, my friend and I were met at the door by a very young but very sweet waiter who asked if we were there for take away or to eat in, before leading us to a table in the otherwise empty upstairs section. He then handed us the menu and guided us to order at the bar when we’re ready. It’s more comfortable than Perry’s certainly, but, without table service, not quite as formal a restaurant experience as I was expecting.
Inside the restaurant, the room hasn’t changed much from its Bhoj days. There’s a slightly sleeker bar area at the front with a rows of rum bottles and a cluster of tables for two, but upstairs on the mezzanine level it’s still a mirrored red room with big leather chairs, and, oddly, an empty TV bracket on the back wall. The main nods to new decor seem to be the flashes of yellow napkins and cute rose table decorations in the colours of the Jamaican flag.
We started with the drinks list, where Vibes offer a big range of colourful rum-based cocktails, such as the Dark and Stormzy and Ting Wray as well as Jamaican classic Guinness Punch, usually thick with condensed milk and cinnamon. But, what with it being lunchtime and all, I chose the non-alcoholic fruit punch of orange and pineapple juice with grenadine. It arrived looking delightfully like something Del Boy would adore, all colours, umbrellas and swizzle sticks. Add that to the heat outside and the reggae soundtrack on the stereo and I felt positively like being on holiday.
Drinks are generally on the affordable side, with soft drinks at £2 and cocktails at around £6, but Red Stripe is the odd exception, at an oddly high £4.50 for a half pint.
Mulling over the menu, I had been really tempted to go for Mumma’s Mutton, which I spotted on another table downstairs. It looked gloopy, dark and meaty. But the July heatwave weather was just too hot to warrant drinking a vat of warm curry sauce, so I opted instead for the jerk chicken plate with sides.
My friend, in a similar weather-based quandary avoided the Brown Stew Chicken and chose the fried chicken and gravy. “I quite like that there’s no chips on this menu,” he noted as he weighed up the list of sides, which included rice, corn and coleslaw, “I can eat more chicken that way”.
After about a 20 minute wait, we were presented with piping hot empty dinner plates and all our food served delicately on separate white ceramic dishes. The portions aren’t quite as colossal as at Perry’s, (a large here, is probably a regular there) but the separate dishes made it good for sharing everything around.
My large jerk chicken was two big legs, thigh and drumstick, blackened beautifully so it was crispy on the outside, but juicy under the skin. The jerk sauce, which came in a small pouring jug on the side, was rich and spicy, but probably a medium level for me with less scotch bonnet and a touch more fruitiness to it. Adorably, the same very young waiter, who I was by now convinced was the owner’s son, timidly admitted while taking away my plate: ‘Personally it’s too spicy for me, but I actually can’t eat anything very hot.’
The chicken was slightly less plump and meaty than other jerk places but the flavour more than made up for it. It was smokier and more barbecued than I’ve had elsewhere in Reading and by the end I was nibbling meat off the bone, because I didn’t want to leave any behind.
The fried chicken dish was also a sizeable portion, with two big thighs and one drumstick coated in a crispy golden batter. From the outside it didn’t look greasy, in fact it looked a touch dry sat in its dish, but on first bite it revealed thick juicy white meat.
‘It’s good, not dry at all actually and there’s just enough spice in there,” my friend decided, “although overall, I think I might just-about prefer the fried chicken at the Oakford.” But it must have been pretty good, as I didn’t get a bite.
The rice and peas side was also a real winner. Rich and creamy from the coconut milk, it had an almost buttery flavour. The kidney beans were cooked to a soft texture and not chalky, a pet hate of mine. Each plate of rice was a sizeable portion, and really we probably could have shared one.
Conversely, our other sides of coleslaw and steamed veg were pretty small. Coleslaw wasn’t overly mayonnaise-y with a nice, slightly vinegary tang. It was good to balance the spice of the jerk chicken, but aside from that, not especially exciting. After one mouthful, my friend declared of the steam vegetables: ‘they look beiger than I thought, but they taste pretty sweet”.
Overall I liked the food a lot. Nothing was too spicy, greasy, or too fatty, which is often a complaint about Caribbean food. It may take away the grittiness for some, but everything was fresh, tasty and – in the lunch deal, anyway- good value for what you get. On leaving I asked a waitress about dinner sizes, and was told the large jerk chicken lunch is the same amount of food that they serve up at dinner time for £13.95. That means it’s either great value at lunch, or over priced for dinner. It’s the type of place I’d come back to for a group dinner, but with that price difference, I’d more likely make it a lunch.
Service was minimal but very sweet and endearing. There were only a couple of waiting staff around while we were in the restaurant but they were both incredibly friendly and keen to make sure things went well and ask our opinions of the food. There was a bit of confusion when we ordered at the bar as it was clear our server was new to the till, but he double checked everything so we hadn’t been overcharged. Later, he brought over the drinks order meant for the table next door. But both times he was so gentle and apologetic about it all, we couldn’t help but feel warmed and smile.
Perry’s and Season’s are great lunchtime spots for huge plates of food, but can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with the menu or the cuisine, or indeed where to find them even. Vibes Caribbean is a bright, bold welcoming entry to Jamaican cuisine. It’s comfortable and friendly with flavourful food and a real family, community vibe. I’ll definitely be back for lunch again and to try the Mumma’s Mutton, which I was told is their most popular dish, and if the prices are a little better, I’ll come back at dinner too. I hope the empty tables fill up around me so that more people in Reading get introduced to the joys of Jamaican food. Then maybe Reading will start to demand our quota of ten Caribbean restaurants.