Chris Greenman of Holden frequently travels to Jamaica. In fact, he has been at least 10 times, in recent memory. So it’s significant that when he visited the newly opened Jamaican Vybz restaurant in Bangor, he knew he would be back.
“This is not something you’re going to have anywhere else in the city,” Greenman said. “This is the type of food you’d buy on the street from huts. It’s what locals eat.”
The takeout restaurant has transformed a corner space on Center and Cumberland streets, long known for businesses with short shelf lives. But owners Pagiel Rose and Andrae Dixon say the changing landscape of Bangor’s food scene and their desire to not just be a restaurant but a neighborhood staple will make them successful.
“Bangor needs culture. We don’t just want to start a business; we want to build a community, a home and a place for locals to go, not just one time,” Rose said.
He also hopes they can lure people familiar to the downtown food scene up the hill to try something new and different.
“We want the locals to know they don’t have to go downtown to get good food, and people from downtown can come here,” Rose said.
Owning their own restaurant has long been a dream of chefs Rose and Dixon, who were roommates in Vermont after moving there from Jamaica in 2007 to cook. Years later, timing, space and finances aligned, and they began moving into the space on Center Street in April. The restaurant officially opened June 5.
The open concept space is decorated with bright reds, yellows and greens. Customers can see straight back into the kitchen, where Dixon and Rose prepare most of the food to order. A handwritten message in chalk offers customers a bit of life advice: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness.”
A house-made rub, with spices imported from Jamaica, coats pieces of the restaurant’s most popular dish: jerk chicken. Fragrant chunks of curried goat are served alongside traditional beans and rice cooked in coconut milk. The menu, which ranges in price from about $6 to $15, offers a blend of the familiar and safe but also unique dishes, such as braised oxtail, for the more adventurous eater.
Rose said he encourages people to try the curried goat, because while not an everyday meat for most families in Maine, it’s not an entirely foreign idea.
“It’s different. Everybody knows goat, but not everybody’s had it,” he said.
On Monday, the restaurant started serving breakfast, including jerk chicken breakfast sandwiches and a Jamaican staple called Ackee and Codfish.
The dish, often served with a starchy side such as potato, is Jamaica’s national dish. The salty codfish complements the mild, buttery flesh of the Ackee fruit and often is purchased at inexpensive roadside eateries.
Some customers say the new restaurant and authentic experience is just what Bangor needs as it continues to grow and experience a subtle but nonetheless present cultural shift.
“It’s representative of our diversification happening in our culture,” Bangor resident Paul Brown said. “Downtown has changed. Now we’re completely cultured: We have the food, the arts, the boutique shops.”
Jamaican Vybz is located at 97 Center St. across from Bangor Floral. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices range from about $6 for breakfast to $15 for large portions of the main dishes. More information and a copy of the menu is available on their Facebook page.