Yeh Mon Caribbean Restaurant has seen better days. It isn’t just the weather-beaten sign out front that betrays the struggles of this south Winston-Salem restaurant, but also the empty dining room at peak lunch hour on a recent Friday.
The Jamaican-first venue, decorated with flags and the colors of the island nation, is set up to hold a couple dozen customers, but when my friend and I walked up to the counter to order, the woman on the other side appeared surprised that we didn’t want takeout. That’s what the few other patrons we saw did, picking one of the vegetarian or curried meat dishes before slipping back outside.
There are several factors that could contribute to the state of Yeh Mon, including its location in a relatively residential area far enough off of Silas Creek Parkway that it’s invisible from the main drag, inhabiting the sort of commercial strip you would only stumble upon accidentally. Next door, a former Tobacco World store stands empty, and Tienda Hispana Salmar and a Dominican blowout hair salon fill out the mini shopping-complex.
But I’d also venture a guess that Caribbean food, and namely Jamaican, has fallen out of favor with a wider Triad audience, given the relatively slow (yet busier than Yeh Mon) stream of customers I’ve seen on several occasions at Uncle Desi’s in north Winston-Salem or Da Reggae Café in Greensboro. Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Mexican fare took hold here, and in the Gate City in particular Vietnamese and Thai are thriving. But when it comes to international cuisine, the Triad as a whole appears less stoked on the rest of the world unless we’re talking about more assimilated European food.
The foodies may still be affixed to the burgeoning up-South movement or a trend of Korean cuisine. Bao is showing up on menus at the French restaurant LaRue and the American sandwich joint Melt in Greensboro, while the reclaimed Southern dish Hoppin’ John is suddenly on menus at places such as Krankies in Winston-Salem. Jamaican and Caribbean food just isn’t en vogue. And that’s stupid, because it’s delicious.
If you’re drawn to collard greens, rice and peas, or gravy-slathered meat, there’s no good reason to skip Caribbean food. If you’re a vegetarian stuck on tofu curry dishes, why not try callaloo at Yeh Mon, a stew-like mix of leafy greens inspired by West African cuisine that varies between Caribbean nations? Or if you don’t feel adventurous, order the jerk chicken wings here instead of at a dive bar.
To really appreciate the offerings of any Jamaican or Caribbean restaurant though, it behooves you to try a curried dish — chicken, goat or fish — or to go all in for the oxtail.
I admit to being partial to the jerk fish at Uncle Desi’s; it’s the first thing I tried at the Jamaican restaurant and while I’ve dabbled in others, I find it difficult to stray. And I started eating at Da Reggae Café when I claimed vegetarianism, so I can’t say I’ve tried the oxtail at either.
Oxtail is a popular dish in plenty of countries around the world, but to someone like me who didn’t grow up with it, the name alone can be a turn off. When you initially see the thing, your first reaction might be, “Wait, there are bones in this?”
Oxtail is a fatty, gelatinous cut of meat, with the bone in the middle anchoring the tender flesh around it. At Yeh Mon, the dish comes with steamed cabbage and rice, but more importantly a thick, savory sauce that doesn’t taste anything like gravy yet still evokes the same feeling. It’s better, and instantly agreeable, too.
If you’ve never been to Yeh Mon, the most noncommittal way to check out the restaurant is ordering a premade beef patty to go. The beef inside is almost gooey, with the consistency of refried beans, and it’s piping hot beneath its flaky pastry casing. At $3, it would be hard to put the bar for entry much lower.
Whatever your reason for skipping out on Jamaican food, consider giving it another try. If you sit down and stay awhile at Yeh Mon, they might cut on the music for you, as someone did most of the way through our recent lunch. But one thing is almost certain; you’re bound to find something you’ll like.
Visit Yeh Mon Caribbean Restaurant at 1345 Lockland Ave. (W-S) or find it on Facebook.