For culinary adventurers, authenticity is the ultimate virtue in a dish. Is it something that generations of mothers and grandmothers have been cooking up with love in their humble kitchens? Would a local be able to verify its credibility with just one bite? At Simma Down in Asheville, word is that the Jamaican food is the real thing.
"If you were invited over to any Jamaican home for dinner," says owner Adam Barnette, "this is what you'd get."
Ackee and salt fish, the "national dish of Jamaica." Jerk chicken and pork. Curried goat or chicken. Fried plantains and greens. Maybe not the curried tofu, but hey we are in Asheville. Barnette says that these dishes are so iconic that knowing how to prepare them is not an exact science. "There aren't really recipes. It's just Jamaican. It's a culture."
Although he's a North Carolina native, Barnette's wife Yvonne is Jamaican, and over the past 12 years or so, the couple has spent about half the year each year in Portland Parish Jamaica with her family. Opening a restaurant has been a dream in his "heart and mind" for many years, and along with Yvonne, executive chef Dave Mullins, and a kitchen full of Jamaican cooks, it's now a reality. Barnett credits Mullins for the culinary know-how behind the restaurant. "I'm not a chef. I know how to cook fish pretty well," he says. "But I love Jamaican food."
While the cuisine is from the Caribbean, the ingredients are definitely local. The goats come from Weaverville, the oxtails from Hickory Nut Gap farm, and the vegetables from local farmer's markets. The ackee (a mildly sweet fruit) comes from Atlanta. And since we don't see a lot of cod in local lakes (that's the fish in salt fish) that comes from the coast. Simma down offers many vegan and vegetarian options (quite a few Rastafarians are vegetarians, Barnett says) including curried and jerk tofu. The restaurant is very conscious of keeping separate fryers for anything that has meat in it. They're also happy to accommodate the less than adventurous with burgers, chicken strips and fries, but even those have a different twist (the fries come with a mayonnaise dipping sauce on the side the way they do in Belgium).
Barnette says that perhaps not surprisingly, some of the most popular dishes are the ones that are somewhat familiar to Southerners: the greens, oxtails, and sweet potatoes. But the flavoring is different: it's spicier. When Jamaicans come to the restaurant ("there are more Jamaicans around here than you might think"), they do occasionally go off menu and ask for yams and boiled dumplings, real Jamaican soul food dishes that the kitchen will deliver if you ask for it. While many Americans may not be familiar with things like festival bread (a kind of fried corn bread), Barnette says most are open to giving them a try (if you've never had salt fish fritters, now is the time: they are perfectly seasoned—spicy, but not overly so, and with a sweet dipping sauce on the side).
With the bright, colorful walls, paintings and photographs of Jamaica on the wall, and reggae music playing in the background, Simma Down has a comfortable atmosphere without trying too hard.
The restaurant, which opened in May, has been getting rave reviews from a variety of sources. They also offer catering and take out with quick service. Barnette says that he hopes his restaurant will have some staying power in its Market Street location, which has seen frequent turn over in recent years. If the quality of the food is any indication, this little Jamaican outpost will be welcoming guests for a long while.