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The New Kings of Cleveland’s Food Scene

West African & Caribbean Cuisine’s Rise.

Written by Michael Eadie

Post-COVID-19 America has not been kind to the restaurant industry. The already-shaky start that many restaurant owners faced before 2019 compounded with the closure of the majority of businesses, with some of the only options left being takeout and delivery. With hundreds of restaurants and cafes closing up shop for good after 2020, there was room for new businesses to rise from the industry’s ashes, Cleveland in particular being home to a budding culture of West African and Caribbean eateries. While some of the notable players in the scene have been around for several years, their popularity has grown in the past few.

So what are some of the must-visit spots in the Cleveland area today? Let’s highlight two that are close to my heart.

Yum Village is new to the city, opening in 2021 on downtown Chester Avenue, just after spaces for rent opened when COVID hit the area hard. They specialize in a fusion of West African (Nigerian and Ghanian) and Jamaican cuisines, with a heavy focus on build-it-yourself bowls, similar to Chipotle. It’s an avenue that has been increasingly popular across the country, with basically every type of food getting their own Chipotle-esque restaurant. Yum Village is not  another clone, however. It’s special.

While their welcoming and friendly staff may keep people interested in Yum Village, the bowls get people in the door — and for many, those bowls are more than enough to make one a regular customer. They offer three different vegan rice options: turmeric, Jollof (spicy) and coconut. The vegan options don’t end with rice, as Yum has incredible curried chickpeas and black-eyed pea fritters. The star of the show is almost always the jerk chicken, with a wide array of sweet and spicy sauces helping to round out the meal. They have wonderful peanut, oxtail, vegetable and fish stews and curries alongside their build-it-yourself bowl, each matching the latter’s quality and flavor. It’s no wonder, as co-founder Chef Godwin Ihentuge had a successful appearance on “Beat Bobby Flay. The restaurant began in Detroit and is soon expanding to Columbus. Importantly for us at CSU, they give student discounts on bowls.

Irie Jamaican Kitchen delves deep into Jamaican cuisine, offering multiple stews, jerk chicken options and incredible red beans and rice. They have created a comforting and friendly atmosphere with a hard-to-miss bright blue Old Brooklyn location and Shaker Heights spot (easily accessible by the Blue or Green Rapid Lines). There are two more locations in Euclid and Akron. They have been around longer than Yum Village, but have kept close to home; their upcoming spot will be opening in Lakewood on Detroit Avenue.  The restaurant’s Old Brooklyn location sits across from a wonderful coffee shop, Six Shooters, which was recommended in a previous Vindicator article and scored highly on the Cleveland Scene’s coffee rankings in 2023. 

Irie Jamacian’s menu consists of jerk, curry and stewed chickens; vegetable bowl options; and comforting side items like cornbread, cabbage and Jamaican beef patties. Unique to Irie are their salsa toppings, which can be added onto just about anything. They also have some genuinely luxurious oxtail. By default, entrees come with Jamaican rice, cabbage and plantains. One thing that might catch a newcomer’s attention is their Rasta Pasta, a jerk-spiced penne in alfredo (I highly, highly recommend it). So who’s behind this staple of the greater Cleveland area? That would be Chef Omar Mckay, hailing from rural Jackson Town, Jamaica. Where Yum Village had most of their growth and success post-COVID, Irie Jamaican Kitchen had to pivot to a curbside pickup model to stay alive. The community answered with continuously high praise and purchases. 

"Cleveland should never take its food scene for granted, but should especially not take its West African and Caribbean food scenes for granted."

What I want readers to take from this is not just a summary of some menu items and fun facts about the restaurants’ founders. I want people to understand how important and incredible it is that after a pandemic that wrecked much of the restaurant industry, and shut the doors permanently on many of our favorite spots, these establishments became pillars of their communities, expanding their scope beyond what they had just a couple years back. Cleveland should never take its food scene for granted, but should especially not take its West African and Caribbean food scenes for granted. They were always there, but what was once possible to miss is now impossible to stop going back to, week in and week out. With innovation in the business and restaurant scene meeting delicious hometown dishes, it can comfortably be said that our new culinary kings are here to stay. Once you try some of their food, you’ll be thanking every person involved with the magic that is both West African and Jamaican cuisine with lips that may just be covered in allspice and scotch bonnet pepper.

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