Los Angeles County is home to approximately 32,000 Caribbean natives*.
All things being relative, it’s not an impressive number.
L.A. county’s foreign born population of 3.5 million is nearly two and a half times the next largest county’s – the notorious cultural mosaic of Miami-Dade County Florida. Yet in terms of sheer volume, 23 U.S. counties boast more West Indians than L.A. Of those 23, Caribbean natives represent an average of 28% of their foreign born population; in L.A., the number is just 1%. Still, even with this dismal performance from the national perspective, L.A. county’s Caribbean footprint is the largest on the West Coast.
Why mention all this? Well, it supports some anecdotal assumptions that back in March led us to ask Derrick Anderson, owner of our favorite local Jamaican establishment, “Does L.A. have Caribbean residents? And where the hell are they?” Anderson’s replies (“Yes,” and “Mostly on the west side”) left us doubly shocked. So naturally, we had to explore further.
Using Yelp data and 2016 5-year estimates from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey, we plotted where the county’s Caribbean and Cuban restaurants were positioned, and which census tracts had Caribbean-born populations in the top quartile for their – from as little as 33 Grenadians to as many as 180 Trinidadians.
“Caribbean” as defined by the ACS included Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indian, and Other Caribbean (excluding the continental Caribbean or Puerto Rico). From Yelp results, all food listings categorized as “Caribbean,” “Jamaican,” or “Cuban” were included, with the exception of food trucks (which lack a permanent location), as well as Belizean and Puerto Rican entries, for consistency with ACS categories.
While a helpful proxy, the foreign-born Caribbean population is, on its own, hardly a bellwether of Caribbean food demand. Data on second-generation Americans of Caribbean descent, for example, was not readily available. Plus anyone who reads Rum & Biscuits knows Caribbean food has mad cross-cultural appeal. Pity that so few resources are dedicated to measuring it.
So, with an acknowledgement that we have just enough data to make us dangerous, here’s where we landed:
From Mid-City to Hawthorne and Gardena, a whopping eighteen Caribbean or Jamaican restaurants shadow the east side of the 405, coursing through the county’s six most Jamaican neighborhoods.
Overlapping or adjoining on the north end in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw and West Adams neighborhoods are the area’s highest concentration of Vincentians (from St. Vincent and the Grenadines) and Dominicans (from Dominica), as well as one of the larger census tracts with a higher number of residents self-identifying as or “Other Caribbean.”
Meanwhile, intermingling with Jamaican communities on the southern end in Hawthorne and Gardena are pockets of Grenadians and Bahamians, the latter reaching northward into Inglewood as well. For these folks, Donna’s Home Caribbean, Island Reggae Kitchen, or Ocho Rios Grill are but a stone’s throw away.
Now is this stretch indeed the “West Side”? Eh, not by the more official definitions. One thing seems clear, though: Los Angeles’ Jamaican food is where its Jamaican residents are, and if you’re looking for the best, you could do worse than drawing a straight line down La Brea from Slauson to Manhattan Beach Boulevard. Anderson and Janga, in immediately adjacent Culver City, certainly seem positioned well to capitalize.
For L.A. county residents hailing from the Dominican Republic and Cuba in particular, food that’s reminiscent of back home is much more plentiful than it is for their British Caribbean counterparts, and even more likely to be found in their own neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods like North Hollywood, Downey, and the Elysian Valley see high overlap between Cuban or Latin Caribbean restaurants and Latin Caribbean-born residents, as does the same Culver-to-Lawndale stretch known for its Jamaican food and population. In almost every neighborhood, if there is a Cuban or Dominican presence, there’s a Cuban restaurant.
And believe that there are plenty of Cuban restaurants in communities with zero Cuban presence. Now we just need one in ours.
Finally, while the ACS categorizes them as Central American rather than Caribbean, we wanted to look into LA. County’s Belizean community and food scene. As a continental Caribbean country boasting the highest percentage of African heritage in Central America, Belizeans have given us foods like the fry jack and cassava-coconut fish soups that resemble Jamaican food more than even Cuba or the D.R. do. And as a foreign born population in L.A. County, if included among them, Belizeans would be second largest Caribbean contingency behind only Cuba.
Hence, perhaps, a decent number of specifically Belizean restaurants. Where Jamaican food heads west from Mid-City, Belizean heads east, down through University Park before ultimately curving back toward the Pacific in Inglewood. The restaurant locations are well-placed, effectively hugging the county’s most concentrated Belizean immigrant community, centered in East Culver, Hyde Park, Vermont Square, and the unincorporated area north of Gardena. It’s not something we accounted for in our final assessment, but worth noting that for a greater focus on the existing Belizean areas on the county, new restaurants would be wise to aim immediately south and east of where the majority are now.
And speaking of where restaurants can and should be, we should reflect on our fundamental two questions:
Could L.A. use more Caribbean food?
First of all, yes. Always yes. Although thank God that Caribbean resident volume is not the only needed to fill. This number for Los Angeles County is extremely low.
Where should new Caribbean restaurants be located?
Torrance and Carson are a great place to start. Two significant Cuban neighborhoods in those cities – which are themselves of considerable size – have only a single Cuban restaurant between them. Literally between them, in the narrow neighborhood of Harbor Gateway.
More glaringly absent is any roti shop or phoulorie spot to service the county’s largest concentration of Trinidadian natives in Northeast Torrance.
The southeast Gateway Cities, meanwhile, are the spicy slaw of Caribbean culture in Los Angeles County – there’s a decent amount of everybody. There’s Grenadians in Bellflower, Dominicans in Lynwood, Barbadians in Watts, and Trinidadians in North Long Beach. Only the Cuban community in Downey, with two Cuban restaurants, could be said to be adequately serviced.
There are a mere four Caribbean restaurants east of the 110 and south of I-5. All four are Cuban.
There’s a similar narrative in the East San Gabriel, where sizeable blocks of Jamaicans in Pomona and Barbadians in Covina have no Caribbean food options beyond a Cuban restaurant in each.
Only in Santa Monica does the story seem to be reversed: with its only significant Caribbean population hailing from Cuba, it’s two Caribbean fare options are the Jamaican-themed Port Royal Cafe and the British/Spanish Caribbean fusion of Cha Cha Chicken. Santa Clarita, whose rare pocket of Barbadian Angelenos may not support island food on their own, is also home to a Cuban community who may warrant more than a single ropa vieja option in the county’s fourth largest city.
When it comes to Caribbean, be it residents or food, L.A. is no New York or Miami – nor could anyone expect it to be. But it’s also no San Francisco or San Diego, which despite far smaller Caribbean populations have still discovered the Trendy Caribbean Lounge in establishments like Palm House and Miss B’s Coconut Club.
This underscores the fact that is both a relief and a frustration: indigenous Caribbean populations aren’t a pre-requisite to great island food. Caribbean food will draw all types of eaters, whether in “pure” form or wrapped up in sorrel mimosa brunches, protein bowls, or fusion concepts. As Anderson pointed out to us back in March, Caribbean food actually has a colossal advantage in its clean-eating appeal, with many dishes that either are or are easy to make vegetarian or gluten free while still packing flavor.
L.A. County’s Caribbean restauranteurs are no fools, least of all Anderson. It’s Caribbean population is at least sizable for the West Coast, and largely west-side-based, if a bit further East and South than imagined, and its Caribbean food scene reflects that. No doubt, these restaurants will continue to serve their communities and attract countless patrons from outside as well, but there is absolutely opportunity to grow and expand. And selfishly, we hope the next expansion is into the Instagram-starring, craft cocktail-having, Thrillist-listing brunch or late night hot spot space of “Sexy Caribbean” and the Trendy Caribbean Lounge!