The email popped up on my screen when I least expected it: “Would you like to explore and write about the inaugural Dine VI Restaurant Week celebrating the local food of St. Croix, US Virgin Islands?” Winter was fast approaching and I suddenly felt ravenous for island food. So my reply was concise: “Hells Yes!”
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. The name alone evokes idyllic images of pristine beaches, swaying palms, cold cocktails with fancy umbrellas. But there is so much more to this triplet sister in the family of paradise islands that form the US Virgins. It’s not just the turquoise blue of the Caribbean in front of stunning hotels; it’s the people – Cruzans – who hold their society dear and work hard to at once both preserve and advance their uniqueness. And a proud part of what makes this place special? The food.
Not long after checking into the iconic Buccaneer Resort I headed into St. Croix’s main event: Christiansted. Here the Caribbean laps against a quay at water’s edge beside the yellow glow of the town’s namesake fort. Old cobblestone streets lead to many small eateries beneath colored archways of stone and coral dating back to 19th century Danish colonialists. Wafting aromas of spice and curry pulled at me as I searched for pastel paintings of NBA star Tim Duncan on an outside wall. “Just ask anyone about the place with the basketball player,” I was told. And it’s true; everyone knows Harvey’s.
At Harvey’s Restaurant the mismatched tablecloths and potpourri of pictures are unapologetically authentic. Equally local is the outstanding food, such as Stew Goat in coconut-curry broth, Pot Fish swimming in an earthy sour gravy, or the favored Old Wife – a fish stew replete with bones, sandpaper skin and remarkable flavor. Sides of “provisions” including fungi – a cornmeal and okra mash – complete every plate. And for the fruity burn of scotch bonnet sauce, Miss Harvey will guide you to its ethereal meaning.
It doesn’t take long before you sense an energy – electric in the air – that is spinning around the food of St. Croix. It’s a culinary renaissance that’s all about local cuisine. And Dine VI Restaurant Week is leading it, encompassing more than thirty dining options highlighting the best of street food, forever-old local cuisine and high-end “New Cruzan” cooking. This gustatory explosion has already attracted the attention of the James Beard Foundation and chefs throughout the Americas. Now everybody wants to be part of what’s cooking in St. Croix.
Even the food trucks are pulling in, and at the first-ever Frederiksted Food Truck Festival more than a dozen lined the main drag of St. Croix’s second city between the colonial architecture and a grassy park slipping into the sea. From homemade mace and nutmeg ice cream to local fried fish, jerk chicken, goat roti and latino specialties, the food at this first-time festival surpassed all expectations. Local island musicians like Pressure raised the street party of more than a thousand people to a fever pitch as a common, excited whisper swept through the crowd: “Just wait until next year when this will be REALLY big.”
The thing about St. Croix that makes it stand apart from many Caribbean destinations is that the people here welcome the tourist dollar but do not live for it, so the exploding world of food is designed more for Cruzans than for tourists. Which explains why the new Cast Iron Pot Restaurant is in a repurposed building along an inland artery of local businesses. One taste of Chef Burton Peterson’s curried goat, slow-roasted pork or marinated whole fish and I began to understand how talented chefs are doing new things with old recipes in order to carry them forward into the future without leaving their Cruzan past behind.
Part of that past has Hispanic origins, and Villa Morales embraces those flavors. Open to the island’s deep interior, the food focuses on local ingredients and technique with a splash of robust Latino rhythm. Like the Conch Cooked 2 Ways – a battle of sublime Cruzan and Latin tastes held at bay by the most tender of rice and yucca. Crazy.
To miss St. Croix’s local food in its local settings is to miss St. Croix’s soul. Still, tourists hungry for elegance are not ignored and at Zion Modern Kitchen the food is distinctly upscale and continental, with local ingredients adorning every gorgeous plate without any need for special effects of stacked towers and flavored foam. But it’s the bar here that really excites, where twenty-something master mixologist, Frank Robinson defies his youth by the drinks he concocts. The corners of his eyes narrow as he asks about your palate and you realize it’s time to get serious. You might answer with a conflicting “savory, spicy heat and warming Asian essence with cooling fruitiness that’s a little sweet, kind’a sour but not bitter or cloying.” “Cool,” he’ll say, glancing at his homemade fermented infusions. He’ll mix, taste, mix some more and then slide a tallboy across the thick wooden bar, “Give this a try.” And in one sip you’ll taste his magic: fire and ice, love and war, frivolity with a hint of longing nostalgia. And just as you name your drink “My life in a glass,” Frank might grin and ask, “ So what’s next?” And you’ll realize it’s gonn’a be a long night.
Dine VI Restaurant Week was an odyssey of St. Croix’s flavor profiles, from Blue Water Terrace’s remarkable fried chicken and elevated view of Buck Island off the coast,
to healing gospel-singing seafood brunches by the beach.
From johnny cakes and salt fish for breakfast, sunset wine parties
and sticking my fingers in a gush of unfiltered Cruzan Rum straight from the distillery’s oak barrels.
But more than just showcasing some of St. Croix’s great restaurants with astonishingly inexpensive prix-fix menus, Dine VI revealed the magic of Cruzan food and the people who cook it. The tastes offered at this inaugural event – sure to more than triple in size next year – reminded me that the excitement of today’s good-food explosion is not within the purview of just the world’s iconic cities, but also of smaller places like St. Croix, where culture rather than glitz is the guiding principle and the food is made by the people, for the people. And it will knock your socks off.
The US Virgin Islands are an international destination and offers more than the usual antiseptic hotels and predictable food found elsewhere. So plan your next visit during Dine VI Restaurant Week 2016, when it expands into a month-long event on all three of the US Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. Don’t miss this special place and its outstanding cuisine. For information click over to: www.dine.vi.