Flavor: Tastes like summer on a plate
Ambiance: Laid-back (surprise!)
I’m sure the owner of One Love Jamaican, the sunny eatery that set up shop in Hendersonville late last year, is trying to do right by his family by pressing pamphlets for his uncle’s resort hotel in Montego Bay on customers. But if the fellow really wants to steer traffic to Dunn’s Villa, he should probably water down his curry sauce and add some grease to his meat patties. Because with island food this good and this close, nobody in Western North Carolina is going to be Googling the number for Air Jamaica anytime soon.
Sure, the bar at Dunn’s features “White Witch’s Brew” (according to the brochure, it was the favorite drink of the plantation’s first owner, her suitors and her slaves), but One Love has cold Red Stripe, tall bottles of ginger beer, and grapefruit-y Ting and Sorrel, a carbonated blend of ginger and hibiscus. So what if Dunn’s is conveniently located near “American country music king Johnny Cash’s vacation villa”? One Love has a likable reggae soundtrack and an electronic keyboard for live-music performances. Dunn’s offers donkey rides? Ha! There’s ample parking at One Love, so you can drive your car and leave the livestock at home.
One Love serves a dozen different plates of Caribbean soul food, from stew pork to butter shrimp. It’s a vigorous exploration of the genre, both by the cooks and the consumers, who may be called upon to suck the marrow from a beef bone splashed with Pickapeppa hot sauce or flick a stray goat hair from their stew. If that sort of engaged eating holds no appeal for you, you probably won’t find yourself infatuated with One Love. But if you’re the kind of foodie who fantasizes about gorging yourself on authentic homespun flavors and getting change for a 10-spot, you may very well be on the cusp of a full-fledged crush, the kind that has you scribbling One Love’s name in the margins of your notebook.
Every immigrant who manages to open an ethnic restaurant in this country has a very personal story about his or her journey to restaurateurhood. Generally, though, those stories fall into one of three categories: There’s the passionate chef whose culinary talents failed to impress their countrymen, so they decide to make a go of it in a faraway place where nobody will doubt their expertise. There’s the smart entrepreneur who traffics in already-beloved ethnic favorites, or makes their fortune by feeding a community of fellow immigrants starved for nostalgic specialties. And then there’s the proselytizer, who believes so strongly in the goodness of the native cookery that they just want to share it. That’s apparently the working narrative at One Love.
There is a relatively sizable population of Jamaicans in Asheville, but most of One Love’s customers aren’t Jamaican (“They go somewhere else,” an employee told us). The restaurant instead stays busy feeding hot lunches to downtown Hendersonvillers who have, perhaps improbably, become devoted acolytes of the One Love Church of Ackee and Codfish.
Ackee and codfish, sometimes called the national dish of Jamaica, is a one-pot meal that neatly melds salty fish with the creamy yellow-tinged fruit of the ackee. While ackees originated in West Africa, the plant’s fan club is headquartered in Jamaica, where Captain William Bligh left its seeds in 1793. Like blowfish and corn dogs, ackees acquired some of their mystique by making diners very, very sick. Jamaican vomiting sickness syndrome—the most graphic of euphemisms for a disease that can lead to coma and death—has been linked to consumption of the unripe fruit. The USDA periodically gets skittish about ackees, and bans their importation, as it did in 2005.
Today canned ackee is back on the shelf, and in One Love’s stellar interpretation of the satisfying dish that many Jamaicans eat for breakfast. Knuckle-sized ackees are the color and texture of an egg scrambled wet, and provide the perfect foil for the slightly oily fish. The whole concoction is peppered and, like all the entrees at One Love, served alongside a mound of buttery rice and a smattering of callaloos, the taro-root green that’s a dead ringer for collards. Unlike all the other entrees, which are available in two sizes, the ackee comes in a one-size-fits-all portion that’s positively gargantuan.
Polish it off, if you must, but make sure to leave room for at least one Jamaican beef patty, the original Hot Pocket that’s had its good name besmirched by big-city street-cart vendors who pass off slick, hard-crusted pies as the real deal. One Love takes its patties more seriously, turning out flaky shells filled with generous helpings of crumbly spiced meat that’s flavored, but not ballasted, by fat.
Fat’s also an accomplice in the savory oxtail, simmered to the consistency of stew meat. But the jerk chicken, served on its own or aboard a salad—where its meant to be dressed with a warm jerk-based sauce and a cool ranch dressing—is admirably lean.
One Love’s curry sauce, which it slathers on shrimp, chicken and goat, is a knockout blend of fresh spices. While the goat is fairly bony—I felt a bit like an archaeologist working my way through the plate, extracting little skeletal bits from my mouth—it’s a rare reward for a Western North Carolina diner bent on ordering the most unique item on the menu. Goat is available almost nowhere else in the Asheville area, and One Love’s winning, last-word rendition is likely to discourage any potential competition.
If there’s extra sauce, the hunk of cornbread perched on the edge of every plate is made for sopping. Corn has a non-speaking role in the astoundingly good bread, which draws its flavors from ginger (and, just maybe, plantains).
Even if you live in Asheville and have to drive some 25 miles to One Love, you’re still getting a heck of a deal: The cost of a weekend trip for two to Dunn’s Villa, including airfare, is $1,047. Before tax. One Love is waiting.