The neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has long been a hub of Caribbean, West Indian, and Orthodox Jewish communities, with distinctive cuisines that connect them to their respective origins. And while gentrification has crawled into the area and brought some changes with it, we can’t forget the restaurants that literally fed and sustained our communities long before new condos sprung up. As a native Brooklynite, I’m always reminded of how important it is to preserve our food cultures and to support the places that helped our neighborhoods grow, one dish at a time. Show up with your dollars and have a seat at these Black-owned restaurants in Crown Heights.
Kelso Bistro and Restaurant
648 Franklin Ave
A fixture in Crown Heights for over half a century and counting, Kelso is one of the neighborhood’s (and city’s) few Panamanian restaurants and arguably the best. Curiously named after one of the fastest thoroughbreds in history, Kelso is celebrated for their $1.50 cups of Café Durán straight from the motherland and their chicheme, a sweet, milky drink exclusive to Panama and Costa Rica. Start with an order of carimañolas, tropical yucca fritters stuffed with beef or pork that are perfectly crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside. Follow up with the sopa de pata, or cow’s foot soup with dumplings and potato. It will redefine your concept of comfort food. For a limbless alternative, you can’t go wrong with the bacalao (codfish). Hailing from the province of Colón, owner Veronica Carmeolo took over and renovated the space in 2006 with the help of her daughter. If you see her, please ask about the restaurant’s namesake.
The Crabby Shack
613 Franklin Ave
The Crabby Shack’s owners, Gwen and Fifi, from the Chesapeake Bay area and Philly, respectively, opened this spot two years ago in response to what they saw as a dearth of quality crab places in NYC. While they serve up crustaceans in every configuration possible, I like to stick to the steamed snow crab legs with spicy butter sauce—but you should def try them with the curry option, too. With so many new kids on the block trying to give Crown Heights an upscale makeover, The Crabby Shack keeps it unpretentious with maritime-themed décor and, of course, bibs.
608 Nostrand Ave
Local fave Sweet Brooklyn is a lot of things—a steampunk-style bar, a Southern-inspired gastropub, and a bottomless brunch spot with DJs spinning in the background. But ultimately, it’s the food that you should be here for, like the springy shrimp-‘n’-grits, the juicy lamb sliders, the Southern fried chicken and waffles, and the four-cheese mac. Bronx native and Sweet BK proprietor Kawana Jefferson took over the storefront just last year and said in an interview, “What better opportunity to bring an establishment to the neighborhood that can provide a place for its residents to socialize and unwind?”
Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine
764 Nostrand Ave
When I was a vegan-ish teenager, Gloria’s In and Out down the block saved me with their fluffy and affordable phulourie, spiced dough balls native to northeastern South America served with chutney. However, now that I’m a card-carrying carnivore, I can fully appreciate the range of Trini and overall Caribbean food they serve up in their larger location on Nostrand and Sterling. The rotis are particularly popular at the neighborhood cornerstone, and while the curry shrimp roti with tamarind sauce is a personal favorite, folks travel from all over to sample the pumpkin roti, and trust me, you should too.
Coming soon to 671 Washington Ave
Sixteen years ago, owners Marilyn Reid and Shawn Leitchford took a tiny two-story alcove across from the Brooklyn Museum and turned it into a culinary institution where they served fresh, heaping plates of Caribbean food to a loyal clientele that won’t stop growing. Though Marilyn chastises me for not being able to finish it, the stewed oxtail here is probably the best in the entire city, while the mac ‘n’ cheese, jerk shrimp, and coconut-sautéed calypso shrimp also are must-trys. However, given the nature of real estate in the area, their storied location is getting the condo treatment, and Marilyn and Shawn will be moving The Islands by the end of summer 2017 to a bigger space down the block, where they’ll be cooking up breakfast and lunch along with their famous dinners.