Escovitch fish, shallow-fried and doused in a spicy vinegar sauce of bright peppers, carrots, and onions, is a staple of Jamaican cuisine. But it’s a rarity in the Twin Cities, where Jamaican restaurants are few and far between. (That said, the restaurants that do exist here are exceptional — spots like Pimento Jamaican Kitchen and Wha’ Jamaican hold it down with succulent goat curries and coco bread sandwiches.) Then, last fall, an exciting new option emerged when Nanny’s Jamaican Kitchen opened in a tidy building on Rice Street, replacing Redd Peppers, another Jamaican restaurant that had built a steady St. Paul following. Chef Okkoy Graham cooks there day in and day out, frying whole red snapper until the skin crisps into a fatty, silvery sheath.
Nanny’s succinct menu, which includes braised oxtail stew, jerk chicken, vegan ital stew, beef patties, festival dumplings, and crispy escovitch fish, among other dishes, took Graham more than two years to perfect. He does all the cooking himself, often arriving at 4:30 a.m. Prior to opening Nanny’s he was a cook at the St. Paul Grill.
Graham’s mother taught him to cook as a kid at their home in Montego Bay, Jamaica. “I was the oldest one, so coming home from school she’d write down on pieces of paper what to finish,” says Graham. “Ever since, cooking’s been in my DNA.” One of the dishes he learned was oxtail stew, now a fixture of his menu. The key, he says, is to not rush the process — he marinates the oxtail for at least a day or two. Then the meat gets a quick sear before it’s simmered with spices and vegetables to coax the marrow and fat into the stew. The result is succulent meat that clings gently to the vertebrae. He serves it with a cabbage slaw that’s less crunchy and zippy than it is soft and tempered, a subtle complement to the stew.
Another standout dish is, of course, the escovitch fish, the whole red snapper that he shallow-fries until the skin crisps, then encrusts with peppers and spices. Beneath it, the meat stays taut and flavorful. He tops it with a vinegar sauce of sliced peppers and onions, which cuts through the fish’s natural fattiness. It’s deeply satisfying to stick a fork near the vertebrae and pull down between the bones, watching the meat separate in a neat chunk.
Graham also serves a somewhat lesser-known Jamaican dish: A vegan ital stew. Ital is, broadly, a diet central to the Rastafari movement in Jamaica. It focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and other unprocessed foods. “Ital” is a contraction of “vital,” underscoring food’s spiritual connection to the earth and to the body. “In this day and age, we’re always talking about culture,” says Graham. “Jamaica is known for marijuana. Bob Marley. The beaches. But nobody’s talking about Rastafari, which is a big part of Jamaican culture. We can’t always be talking about jerk chicken, because jerk chicken doesn’t represent everybody.”
The ital stew is entirely vegan — root vegetables like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and carrots make it hearty and filling. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it has cream in it. The coconut broth is buttery, somehow, and little globules of fat float to the top.
Nanny’s menu is stacked with other classic Jamaican dishes: jerk pork and jerk chicken, country-style curry goat, festival dumplings made with cornmeal. But don’t overlook the beef patties. “If you’re Jamaican and don’t know anything about a beef patty — please,” Graham says, and laughs. “When I get to the airport and am back in Jamaica, one of the first places I want to stop is at a patty shop.”
Graham came across his Rice Street location by chance. He was on his way home from a soccer game one day when he decided to stop in — at the time, the restaurant was another Jamaican spot called Redd Peppers. He started chatting with the owner, who told him he was shutting down. Up to that point, he’d intended to operate Nanny’s as a food truck, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. “A lot of people discouraged me,” says Graham. “They didn’t think it was a good location on Rice Street. But I can honestly say I’ve received nothing but love and a warm welcome.”
Find Nanny’s Jamaican Kitchen at 969 Rice Street on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.