Island Dine is a Hidden Jamaican Paradise in Penn Station
Island Dine is now closed in the great clearing-out of restaurants in this space. RIP jerk chicken in Midtown ;_;
The LIRR section of Penn: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy that isn’t Port Authority Bus Terminal. While there are a few standouts (I can only think of Chickpea in the Amtrak concourse and Soup Spot up on street level) there are also plenty of Tim Horton’s that would love to sell you awful food. However, in the Gibsonian brightly-lit commuter hell of the LIRR alleyway, there’s good Jamaican food to be had. With the sudden departure of Jamaican Dutchy (we can only hope it was passed to the left hand side) and the only other nearby option being the upworld Jamaican Kitchen (I won’t even deign to mention Golden Krust) it’s always good to have an option – but is it irie or should you not even bother?
This is literally a “blink and you’ll miss it” place. It’s in the same space as Nathan’s/KFC right catty-corner to the main ticker board in the LIRR concourse. Easiet way to get there: go to the 1/2/3/LIRR entrance on 34th and 7th, go down the escalator, hang a right, and look up.
The menu’s on the limited side, but it covers the better-known basics of Jamaican cuisine. I kind of wish we still had the Sunrise Grill truck that was on 37th and Broadway for a little while several years back, but it’s been AWOL from Midtown for too long. No ackee & saltfish on the menu, but at least there’s oxtail – but at $1 over the ML limit.
Because I’m a jerk, I went for the eponymous chicken (rim shot). Half out of wanting jerk chicken, the other half because my first choice – callaloo cod – wasn’t available on the Wednesday I went. I’d say call ahead if you’re hinging your hope of a good day on having callaloo cod, but I couldn’t find a take-out menu, business card, or any other indication of location anywhere.
Everything comes with rice and beans, greens, and plantains. The guy who ran the place had to coach the employee packing the boxes through what to put in, and the Riese Restaurants logos on her made me think that Island Dine was subsumed into some kind of restaurant empire. Hell, it ended up okay.
There’s a full stock of Jamaican sodas, which you gotta get. The hibiscus ones are great, but for my money, you can’t beat Ting. It’s like Fresca with real sugar and a lot more tartness to it.
All this and a soda for $9.97 (most dishes are $7.25, extra portions of the sides are $2.50). Three cents shy of the Midtown Lunch global limit. For reference, that’s two drumsticks, two thighs, half a breast, what looks like a whole paddy’s worth of rice and beans, about ten plantain slices, and a big-ass scoop of callaloo greens. Ladies and gentlemen, you will eat all this in one sitting only if you are the hungriest ML reader. New personal rule: any meal with rice as a side is from here on out divided into two meals, in order to prevent the Itis’ creeping onset at 2 PM.
Quantity, sure, but quality? It’s there. The jerk spice is prevalent and flavorful, and it’s the exact balance you want from good Jamaican food. They don’t skimp on the allspice and they definitely do use enough Scotch Bonnet peppers to make it interesting. I felt a very nice burn throughout eating, and they don’t shy from the use of garlic, onions, extra black pepper, and I think a bit of fresh thyme too.
The jerk marinade caked on the outside is a good indicator that this stuff was properly grilled, or at least in some kind of simulacrum of a grill in so small a kitchen space. It’s still moist enough inside, although it had creeping dryness enough that definitely didn’t come from the marinade. My serving came from the steam table, so maybe they need to turn up the steam a bit to keep the temp high. Still, the dark meat pieces were very good and exactly what I always hope to get whenever I order chicken for lunch. The white meat was of course on the dry side, but the simple solution is just to ask for a thigh instead of a breast. It’s all on the bone, too, so be prepared to have loud sucking sounds coming from your computer (and this time, it’s not the sound of your soul leaving your body on a cloud of jerk chicken-fueled Itis).
The sides hold their own really, really well. My hopes were high after a lackluster rice & beans experience at Café Mofongo, and they weren’t dashed. Island Dine’s rice & beans is well-executed, nice and fluffy with the beans not too mashed up. It wasn’t a combo of saucy beans atop plain rice, but definitely cooked together. There are chunks of peppers and onions throughout the rice and best of all, it has a nice subtle sweetness to it. I don’t know where that comes from and I wasn’t expecting it, but there it was – and it’s an amazing balance to the low burn of the chicken.
I’m still a sucker for the more caramelized fried plantains over these baked-style ones, but they’re the best baked plantains I’ve yet had for lunch. They’re not too dry and they’re on the good side of sweet. Not too much, just enough. Good stuff.
As to the callaloo greens, I’ve wanted to try them for a long time and really liked it. The greens are a pot-liquory hodgepodge and had a nice fishy taste to them. I’m sure that at this point all the nutritional value has been cooked out, but I really, really liked them anyway. If the massive carboload of rice, beans, and plantains didn’t clue you in, this is food to be had in moderation – not for the health-conscious. Great to tell Atkins devotees what you REALLY think and feel.
I never thought I’d say I’m jealous of LIRR commuters – I’m sure any of them would agree with me on that – but I am jealous of this food option on tap for them. If you’re looking at a delay board whose numbers verge into the hair-pulling, this is a damn better food option than its compatriots in the NJ Transit and Amtrak parts of Penn. More than that, it’s worth a walk just to get it. I definitely think they’re spot-on with the chicken so long as they can tweak the steam table up a bit, and the sides are spot on. This is a damn good Jamaican food experience that defines the Midtown Lunch standard, and it’s worth spending twenty minutes of city time to walk to/from Island Dine. Just don’t forget the Ting.
The +s (What irie rude boys who run on island time would say):
- Cheap! Plentiful! Spicy! Flavorful! Ting! Ginger beer!
- Some of the better rice and beans out there.
- Gotta love finding hidden treasures, especially the ones hidden in plain sight within commuter range.
The –s (What all the badman of Babylon would say):
- How the hell are you out of your first menu item at 12:15 PM on a Wednesday?
- The food is lukewarm just as it’s served, gotta turn up the heat on the table. Microwave to the rescue!
- Overcooked white meat should be outlawed, why even serve it anymore?
Island Dine, Penn Station – LIRR Section (Take a right from the 7th Ave LIRR entrance, next to KFC)