Island Spices & Neighborly Vibes at Tru Jamaica

Drive down Taylor Street and Tru Jamaica emerges like a shimmering island in an ocean of barren fields, industrial loading docks, and residential cottages. Set apart on its own plot of land, the timber porch, green and blue pastoral murals by celebrated Waco artist Ira Watkins, and a trio of palm trees invites hungry travelers into the cool, relaxing interior for a taste of island home cooking.

Step inside and its gentle magic takes hold—soft reggae music wafts past murals of Black families fishing azure waters, the smell of curried meats seasons the air, and as the lunch crowd trickles in, guests greet each other like old friends.

Curries, Beef Patties & Scotch Bonnets Galore

If you have the pleasure of catching Aniceto Charles at the register, you’ll be treated to a fine dining level of service rare for a fast-casual establishment, but all of the staff are gracious and friendly, answering questions and guiding you to your ideal dish.

Jerk chicken

Aniceto Charles owns Tru Jamaica with his mother, Vivia Charles, whose menu reflects the dishes she grew up eating in the small town of Pratville, Jamaica. While Aniceto runs front-of-house, Vivia oversees the execution of her family recipes in the kitchen—moist jerk chicken, curried shrimp with coconut rice and peas, and addictive beef patties, all delicately laced with allspice, pimento, turmeric, secret curry seasonings, and Scotch bonnet chiles.

The portion sizes are no fooling, but Aniceto can guide you there too. “If you’re just feeling peckish, then you want the curried shrimp,” he advises. “If you’re really hungry, go for the chicken.” 

Curry shrimp

The shrimp are sauteed in a balanced blend of curry spices and nestled atop a serving of delicate coconut rice and peas which, in Jamaican cuisine, are actually kidney beans. A crunchy side salad of barely cooked and lightly salted cabbage, onions, carrot, and bell pepper adds a welcome freshness to the substantial rice and peas, while fried plantains balance the savory elements with their signature earthy, caramelized sweetness. It’s an excellent dish and more than enough for one person to demolish.

Vivia Charles is passionate about vegetables, and while her menu is not vegetable-heavy, her small additions of produce to every dish are thoughtfully prepared. There are no sad side salads at Tru Jamaica, no bags of withered spring mix upended on your plate as an afterthought. In fact, lettuce doesn’t feature at all. According to Vivia, lettuce doesn’t fair well in Jamaica’s climate, so salads are traditionally made with cabbage—not the boiled cabbage of Jamaica’s former colonizers, but crisp-tender shreds which, even when sauteed, maintain their texture and add a refreshing bite to the heavier rice, peas, and meats.

Red cabbage potato salad

You’ll find a welcome side of Vivia’s salad with every entree, including the jerk chicken—an enormous helping of moist meat—two whole thighs and a drumstick—marinated overnight in jerk spice, grilled, and served with a slightly sweet jerk barbeque sauce. You’ll also find curried goat on the menu—tender pieces of bone-in meat mingling with those bright curry spices, the gameyness of the meat balanced by the heat of the curry and the sweet plantains—and bone-in red snapper.

What’s the secret to those juicy, spiced meats?

“It isn’t just one or two ingredients, it is many, they are always layered,” says Vivia, “and everything is marinated.” She insists that you won’t get the same results unless you think ahead and marinate your meats overnight.

“We’d be in our kitchen in Brooklyn as kids,” she remembers, “and there was a banquette in there and a little tv, and we’d be hanging out while mom would be cleaning meat, seasoning it, and putting it in the fridge for a future meal, always. Later on, my husband was always like—several days ahead of time—‘What are we having for dinner?’ so he could start seasoning the meat.” That extra time spent chilling in spices makes all the difference to the final dish.

As your fork settles into a rhythm around your plate, you’ll discover the perfect bite, that mouthful that incorporates elements of every dish on your plate in a confluence of flavors and textures greater than the sum of its parts. A small scoop of rice and peas, a few tendrils of vegg, a sliver of sweet plantain, and a luscious morsel of meat come together singingly on the tongue, each element both enhancing and balancing its counterparts.

While Scotch bonnets are prevalent in most dishes, you’ll find that they are used as much for flavor as for heat, and the Jamaican beef patties are an excellent example of the bright, capsicum complexity a Scotch bonnet can impart without setting your tongue aflame. You don’t want to skimp on those patties, which are not only addictive but laced with Jamaican history.

Jamaican Beef Patties & Culinary Cornerstones

Beef patties have long been a linchpin of Jamaican cooking. When English colonists enslaved the people of Jamaica to grow and process sugarcane in the 17th century, they brought their recipes with them. Cornish pasties—British meat-filled hand pies—were recreated by enslaved Jamaican cooks and then reimagined with local spices and ingredients. What was once a bland, starchy staple for the English became a curry-spiced emblem of Jamaican resistance, and patty shops continue to serve as a cultural touchstone for the Jamaican diaspora.

The crust of the beef patty owes its flakiness to a healthy helping of lard, its yellow coloring from turmeric-laden curry powder in the dough. Tru Jamaica’s patties are almost twice as big as a pop tart and filled with an emulsified, almost-spreadable beef filling redolent with curry and not-too-spicy Scotch bonnet. Each patty is a perfect portable meal, like a Thai pork bun or a Spanish empanada, fully contained and bursting with flavor. They keep well, reheat like a dream, and make for a great lunch or afternoon snack (or breakfast, or elevenses—do you need an excuse?). At $3 each, you can buy a week’s worth to keep in your fridge for those days when you just can’t face the kitchen.

For Vivia Charles, beef patties were a city treat—street food available only when her family took a trip into town.

“Rarely did we eat patties,” says Vivia. “Once in a blue moon, we would go into Mandeville, which was a busier part of Manchester, and that would be our treat: a patty and a malt. But the patty has made its way into America and we used to see patty shops in Brooklyn. In America, we go for a hamburger, in Jamaica we go for a patty.”

For Vivia, the dish that reminds her most of Jamaica is curry.

“My dad grew chickens in Jamaica, and currying up the chicken is just something we always did,” says Vivia. “It’s such a simple dish. I always tell Aniceto when we discuss dishes that it’s kind of my heart that’s saying what I want to show people about the dish from a feeling that I get. And with the curries, that’s a really great time—especially for anyone that’s not used to eating vegetables—to eat a plate of vegetables or a salad. I don’t know why, but Jamaican curry lends itself to vegetables. There’s nothing better than having a plate of salad with a curry.”

Order the curried chicken at Tru Jamaica, and you’ll taste the same dish Vivia’s family has cooked for generations.

The Winding Road to Waco & Tru Jamaica

Vivia relocated to the US with her mother, father, and six siblings when she was eight years old, the second Black family to settle in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. At the time, there were no Caribbean restaurants nearby, but Vivia’s mother kept Jamaican culture alive in her kitchen while Vivia subconsciously absorbed culinary lessons for a later date.

Aniceto & Vivia Charles

“I wasn’t that much into cooking,” says Vivia, “but as a kid, you’re usually in the kitchen, and I saw everything my mom did. She basically made the same things over and over again. And food—for everyone—is the main thing, especially when you come over here as immigrants. Everybody kind of goes out into the world for school or whatever, and then you come home and the thing that is familiar is the food. And my mom was a great mom—she cooked all the time—and if you went to your aunt’s house, it was the same thing.”

In the seventies, Vivia, like many women of her generation, had ambitions beyond the kitchen. When she met and married her husband, a man from a large Venezuelan family in which all the children, male and female, learned to cook, she let her husband feed the family while she pursued a career in hairstyling.

“Even though I didn’t embrace cooking—like a lot of women at that time I was like, okay, cooking, really?—now it’s so interesting,” says Vivia. “I really, really honor those women—my mom, my aunt. I really understand now the love and the care that went into their cooking.”

After Vivia met and married her husband, the two moved their growing family to Woodbridge, Virginia, where Caribbean eateries were equally nonexistent.

“Jamaicans are always looking for native food,” says Vivia, chuckling, “and there was nothing in our area. You had to drive to DC. We had talked and talked about opening a Jamaican restaurant, and then one day we saw the perfect place. It was a Little Caesars that had gone out of business, so the building was ready for a restaurant.”

With the help of her retired brother-in-law, Vivia ran her successful family restaurant, Caribbean Carry Out, for seven years before her husband’s ill health necessitated a lifestyle change. Eventually, she sold the restaurant to a local family, and her husband passed away not long after. Finding herself at a crossroads, Vivia turned to her faith for guidance. Through prayer and a series of coincidences that kept bringing Waco, Texas, to the forefront, Vivia decided it was time to leave Virginia.

“I’m always looking for that divine guidance, and you know it when you’re always having a relationship with God. One day I clearly felt the Lord tell me to move to Waco. We gathered up the kids and their spouses and everyone agreed to move. So, there was no interpretation, no nothing, we just kind of went for it.”

Just as a divine hand guided the Charles family to Waco, it led them to their new restaurant home, a former neighborhood fish fry joint that had stood empty for many years. The exterior and interior still boast murals by Ira Watkins, which perfectly evoke a Caribbean idyll. Then there are the three palm trees in front of the restaurant—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For Vivia, these were all signs that she was on the right path.

Tru Jamaica was recently featured in the City of Waco’s new Taste of Waco video series.

Tru Jamaica is located on Taylor Street in East Waco and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 am to 8 pm. It also partners with Waco Food Tours as one of its stops, and in 2020 the restaurant was featured on Texas Bucket List.

Want to know more? Check out Vivia Charles’s recipe for red cabbage and potato salad.

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Angelica Mazé is a Waco transplant by way of San Francisco, New York, and Saudi Arabia. A former chocolatière and production manager, she is now a writer and freelance marketing consultant with a focus on food and cooking.

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