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Many years later, the spices, smells and flavors that I fell in love with on that Jamaican street corner have come to downtown Chattanooga and Steelpan Rastaraunt.
The sweet smell of Caribbean spices greeted me the minute I walked through the door. Subtle wisps of allspice, tamarind and thyme drifted over my cilia as I took my seat and revived the memory of my first bites of true Caribbean food. Two decades ago, I sat on a curb in Spanish Town, Jamaica, dug my teeth into a piece of tender, juicy, spiced jerked chicken that had been plucked straight from a converted oil barrel charcoal grill—and became instantly hooked on the flavors and aromas of the Caribbean. I returned to Chattanooga to face the stark reality that my fair city was painfully devoid of places for me to feed the Caribbean food monkey clinging aggressively to my back. Now, so many years later, the spices, smells and flavors that I fell in love with on that Jamaican street corner have come to downtown Chattanooga and Steelpan Rastaraunt. (Yes, rastaraunt.)
Steelpan is the brainchild of John Shoemaker, owner of JJ's Bohemia, who started the restaurant out of a love of Caribbean food and a desire to fill an obvious gap in Chattanooga's food scene. “We wanted to add a new set of flavors to the city's palate,” says Shoemaker. “It's casual, fresh Caribbean fusion cuisine that draws its flavors and influences from all of the coastal areas and islands surrounding the Caribbean Sea.”
Caribbean food is inherently “fusion” cuisine. The Caribbean's role in the spice trade, and its historically central location for Spanish, British, French, Dutch, African, Indonesian, Indian, Mexican, Cuban and Chinese travelers have dramatically shaped the flavors of the islands.
The menu at Steelpan takes full advantage of this wide range of flavors and influences, while keeping to the core spice palette common to the region. The menu is surprisingly large and reasonably priced, with salads, sides, sandwiches, flats (pizza-like devices made on naan bread) and pans or entrees served on round steel pans, yet another play on the restaurant name—Steelpan.
If you are expecting to find jerk chicken with black beans and rice, you will not be disappointed. The chicken in Steelpan's Jerk Pan is juicy, the jerk seasoning is spicy, rich and well balanced by the coconut milk, cilantro and sweet pepper sauce that tops the dish. Although I am a committed carnivore, I did steal a few bites of the Vegan Curry Pan off the plate across the table, and it was a perfect mix of medium-spiced coconut curry with vegetables and a few chunks of sweet pineapple to break up the richness of the curry. Delicious in spite of being vegan.
When you think Caribbean food, you may not immediately think of sandwiches, but you should. Steelpan's Cuban sandwich is made with CocaCola marinated pork and real Cuban mustard; their Sririachacha (say that three times fast and Eddie Huang will appear) is a masterpiece of mango Sriracha pork and goat cheese; and then there's the Aruba Tuna. I thought a tuna melt was just a tuna melt until I got a mouthful of Steelpan's cilantro-lime tuna salad with melted mozzarella cheese, topped with guacamole, tomato and mixed greens on a french baguette. It shouldn't work, but oh, how it does and it works especially well with a big glass of freshly brewed mango tea.
Broke UTC students, revelers needing to soak up the evening's beverages or anyone that just wants a tasty snack will love the flats, otherwise known as naan (Indian flatbread) pizzas. At just five bucks, these eight-inch tandoori treats come in variations such as the Pork Naan (hummus, Mojo pork cooked in molasses and beer, goat cheese and mozzarella); the Chicken Naan (jerk chicken, bacon, cheese and veggies over Steelpan's house sweet pepper sauce); and for vegetarians, there is of course a veggie version.