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Last modified on March 14th, 2019 at 9:15 am
Jamillia Joseph placed a bowl on the table containing a single browned Johnny Cake.
“It’s homemade bread that we deep fry,” Joseph said. “There’s not one person who doesn’t like Johnny Cakes.”
The unassuming little cake is somewhere between a doughnut and a funnel cake — the crisp browned outside is hot from the oil, and the fluffy white middle, still steaming, is just slightly sweet.
Guests entering Desert Island Eatery essentially enter Joseph’s kitchen. It’s an unhurried oasis filled with warm aromas, bright colors, and reggae music.
Joseph appears at the door with her son on her hip to greet guests, while her husband drops by with a menu. “No Goodbye” by Beres Hammond plays in the background and a sign reads, “Less house, more home,” all of it spelling out that customers are welcome to have a seat and stay awhile.
The eatery began as a conversation between Joseph and her mother years ago in 2015, when the space was available at the storefront on North Campbell Avenue.
“It’s been since I was nine that I was allowed in the kitchen, so it’s never stopped,” Joseph said. Food has always been grounded in family and home life for her. “Being able to provide for my family is what I’m known for.”
Born in Jamaica from Antiguan parents, Joseph’s recipes are from her family, and her cooking is an intrinsic fusion of island sensibilities.
The “Island” in “Desert Island Eatery” refers to the Caribbean islands, such as Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, and the British Virgin Islands. Each island has its own food history and culture, so the possibilities vary.
One binding tie among island cuisines is spice. “We have a lot of homemade seasonings, about four or five to be exact,” Joseph said.
Two of the seasonings are a mixture of fresh spices, and all are mixed by hand. Because jerk seasoning is one of the mixes, they are often pegged as a Jamaican restaurant — however, it is only one of the seasoning options.
Jerk features pimentos, also known as allspice, as a main ingredient. It’s slightly sweet from brown sugar and warmed with spices including nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon.
While Scotch Bonnet pepper is traditional, Joseph uses the almost-identical habañero in her recipe for jerk seasoning.
Jerk barbecue tofu is one of the bestsellers that may never leave their menu. Ultimately, her cooking is inclusive, as she also offers a handful of Mexican food options such as burritos and quesadillas.
Desert Island Eatery also has a reputation for its vegan options. Jamillia is pescatarian — the only meat she eats is seafood — and has family members with varied dietary restrictions or preferences.
Vegan guests can enjoy the Curry Tofu and Chickpeas in an island-style curry and coconut cream base, a Vegan Burrito, or nachos with melty vegan cheese. And that’s not to mention the tofu rubbed with jerk seasoning and cooked with house-made sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.
While the vegan options have gained popularity, one item has developed a cult following: oxtail. The unctuous braised meat is only available with two days advance notice.
Although every menu item features spice or seasoning, not everything contains heat. The Cucumber Salad with tomato and red onion is mixed with a vinegary house-made pepper sauce that balances the cooling cucumber with warmth from the pepper sauce.
It’s flavorful without being overpoweringly hot, and the Josephs have heard no complaints on this score — Joseph’s two-year-old son eats almost anything on the menu.
The menu is meant to feed anyone and is truly inclusive; lunch could be anything from Caribbean barbecue Jerk Chicken to a Sonoran-style burrito with yellow rice and pinto beans, to Asian pork fried rice. Desert Island Eatery is “openly fusion,” not limited by its name.
The menu branches out in experimental and surprising ways, usually in their daily specials.
Featured previously was conch, a mollusk that most people know by its unique spiral shell.
Not usually available in the Southwest, the conch had been brought in from New York.
In the Caribbean Islands, conch is widely available and divers fish for them by hand. Some even farm conch by planting seagrass to attract them.
Also common are whelks, a smaller kind of shellfish, that are plucked off of rocks at low tide with knives. Whelks have a grittier texture but are sweet and earthy.
The conch at Desert Island Eatery was prepared with a handful of the house-made seasonings and served on a bed of moist, savory long grain rice. The meat of the conch was cut into pale white rounds, salty, and oceanic with a delicate minerality. It was very much like eating scallops, but with a little more chew. Joseph described conch as somewhere between scallop and steak.
Alongside the conch were the cucumber salad and fried plantains. The plantains were caramelized, sweet, and juicy on the inside.
For dessert, the eatery offers Johnny Cakes with spicy apple chutney and vegan condensed milk.
Looking to the future, Joseph has plans for what she wants Desert Island Eatery to be.
She wants to move from the current space to branch out to a farmers market with seasonal menus. Certain things will never leave the menu though, such as the barbecue tofu, jerk chicken, and curry chicken, but there will then be room for “Rasta Pasta” — cheesy pasta with jerk chicken — in the fall, and roti in the spring.
They have also been talking about the possibility of getting a liquor license and pairing their house-made juices — ginger, pineapple, mango, and guava — with rum or vodka.
If nothing else rounds up Joseph’s overall philosophy, it would be her answer to “the desert island question.” If Joseph was stranded on a desert island, what three things would she bring with her?
“My son, my mom, and his dad,” Joseph said. “I think I’d be fine without everything else.”
Desert Island Eatery is located at 2513 N. Campbell Ave. Catering is available. For more information, call (520) 300-4953 or keep up with Desert Island Eatery on Facebook.