One of my great joys in being a paramedic is the diversity of food I can eat on the job. For the last year I have been working on a blog called A Paramedic’s Guide to Hartford Takeout. It is not quite ready for official release, but here is a preview — my top ten list.
This was a hard list to compose. These 10 are tried and true places I go to time and again.
1. Jahm Ske’s: West Indian Back A Yard Style Cusine
Hartford has over thirty Jamaican restaurants, reflecting its large Jamaican population. There are at least 15 Jamaican take out restaurants on Albany Avenue alone. The food is always precooked and ready to be served into a Styrofoam container, and then placed in a brown bag with plastic utensils for takeout. Most restaurants offer breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many of the places are closed on Sunday.
My favorite Jamaican restaurant is Jahm Ske’s (pronounced Jam-skis) on Albany Avenue in the McDonald’s Plaza. They are the busiest and most consistently good place I have been to. I often order breakfast there. Recently I had akee and saltfish, which is the Jamaican national dish. Ackee is a yellow fruit that looks like scrambled eggs. It is sauteed with saltfish (cod), onions and peppers. Breakfasts traditionally come with boiled green banana, yam, and dumpling. This dish will cost $10. Expensive, but very good.
If you want a cheaper alternative, order okra and saltfish or cabbage and saltfish, which will cost you $6 for a small size. The meal, thanks to the boiled green banana, yam and dumpling is very filling and will keep you full for hours.
Jahm Ske is also great for lunch and dinner. Jahm Ske’s jerk is not too spicy. Those who don’t like spice at all should order stew chicken, which is just stewed slow cooked chicken. Their oxtails are also delicious and the gravy is fantastic.
If you are looking for something extreme, try the Goat’s Head Soup available on Fridays. Goat’s Head Soup is made from goat brains with some vegetables and maybe some dumpling thrown in. It is considered an aphrodisiac.
Jahm Ske doesn’t serve pork products.
2. Bem Brasil Buffet
The Bem Brasil Buffet on South Whitney Street just off Park is my go-to-takeout in Hartford. I went in there several years ago, and as soon as I walked in the place, I felt every eye was on me, and everyone stopped talking. Who was this tall stranger in their clubhouse? I looked around for some clue about how to get food, but all I could see was a small buffet area, some plates, and some Styrofoam containers. There were no prices anywhere, and no one was volunteering to help me. I was uncertain if it was fill it up and pay one set set price or pay by the pound. I can speak Spanish, but not Portuguese, which is what I believed they were speaking when I first walked in before the place went silent. Still uncertain, I just nodded and walked back out.
Not to return until this past Spring, and only then after another medic had mentioned he’d worked with someone who had gone in there one day and walked out with food.
When I went in, I got the same silent treatment I’d had before. A soccer game was going on one big-screen TV and a Brazilian starlet was singing on another screen. There were several men drinking bottles of beer at the small bar, and three others sitting at a table in suspended conversation. This time I spotted a small cardboard sign with hand writing on it posted above the buffet. $4.99 lb. Carne $6.99 lb.
There were maybe 12 offerings in small heated buffet pans. I took a Styrofoam container and served myself some white rice, some sweet potatoes, and then added some kind of chicken simmered with okra, some short ribs and a pork sausage. I added some sweet plantains, folded the lid over and walked to the register where I handed it to a massive bearded strongman who stood behind the bar. He nodded, set it on the scale. I handed him a ten. He took it and handed me several dollars in change, put the carton in a plastic bag with a plastic fork with napkin. I nodded and walked out.
The food was unbelievably delicious. Meat moist and tender and flavorful. It tasted like home-cooking.
I have been back many times since. Still no conversations, but at least there is some recognition of me with nods when I come in. And the other patrons no longer stop talking when I come in. My sense is this is a local hangout for the Brazilian community, and not many other people wander in off the street. But believe me, it is worth it. There are many days when I should be trying new places, that I stop in here because I am hungry and want some home cooking at a cheap price.
The food there changes everyday. You never know what you are going to get, but there is usually always at least one variety of rice, beans, chicken, beef, pork, salad.
I went in there the other day near closing and the pickings were sort of meager. Still I served myself some rice, some chicken, a beef dish, and some steamed vegetables, and as always, they were awesomely delicious. And I got some conversation too.
3. El Mercado
Open Seven Days a Week (until 7 PM, 5PM on Sunday)
If there is one place you visit in town for a Hartford ethnic food experience, it is El Mercado on Park Street. El Mercado means “The Market” in Spanish. El Mercado has a Spanish grocery store and four latin food stalls which are mostly cafeteria style with steam tables of preprepared food.
El Gran Dominicano (Dominican)
El Tepeyac (Mexican)
Antojitos Columbianos (Colombian)
Authentica Sabor Peruviano (Peruvian)
All four places are great. For years I ate only at the Dominican because I made friends with the woman who ran it. I had gone to the Dominican Republic twice on medical missions, so when I shared this with the people at the restaurant, we became friends and I always practiced my Spanish when I went there. That restaurant closed when the owner got another job, but it has been replaced by another Dominican stall, and the food is still quite good. My favorite order is roast pork (be sure to ask for a piece of skin), yucca and tostones (friend green plantain).
Here is a photo of roast pork (cerdo asado), yucca and tostones:
4. M&M Fresh Fruit Salad
M & M Fresh Fruit Salad truck is at 55 Jewel on the north end of Bushnell Park Monday through Friday from 10:00 A.M.-3:00 P.M.
They offer several sizes of delicious fresh cut fruit. I usually get the Medium for $4. You get melon, cantelope, watermelon, pinnapple, strawberries and grapes.
The truck also offers hot Vietnamesse cooking, but the fresh fruit is the main draw.
5. Tastee’s Doughnuts
If you like doughnuts, this hole-in-the-wall shop on New Park Avenue is the place. Tastease midi doughnuts (smaller than a regular doughnut, but bigger than a mini doughnut) are made fresh early every morning and hand-decorated by the husband and wife who own the place. In business for business for 8 years, they have 36 different varieties. They open at 7 on Tuesday through Friday and 8 on Saturday. They are closed on Sunday and Monday. While they are open until 3 each day, it is not unusual for them to sell out in an hour or less, particularly on Saturdays.
When I first went in, I asked for a half dozen, but, disoriented by the variety, I was completely unable to choose, so I finally said, just give me a dozen and you pick. Here’s what I got: pumpkin, apple with crčme cheese, red velvet with raspberry crčme, Oreo cookie, blueberry, orange juice, pancake, maple, lemon crčme, swiss chocolate, and some others.
I usually don’t even eat doughnuts. I was just going in to try the place because it was there. I ended up eating five in a matter of minutes and nine within the hour. They taste just like they are named. These are gourmet, filled with love and tender care, doughnuts. I tell people they are made by elves. The hardest part for me is deciding which one to eat. They taste so good, but they are so beautiful, I don’t want to destroy them; I just want to look at them and show them to people.
I am now a Johnny Appleseed of Tastee doughnuts. I buy a dozen or two (the doughnuts are put in pizza boxes) and I walk around handing them out to friends and strangers. I will leave a box in the EMS room of a hospital or at a nurse’s station. I will drop a dozen off to a friend with children. I’ll hand a box to the homeless men in the park across from the shelter. I feel like I am doing the world a good deed.
Midis are 50 cents each, a half dozen for $2.95, a baker’s dozen for $4.95. You can get one of each variety (called a 3-dozen gourmet platter) for $14.00. If you are worried about the doughnuts being sold out, you can call ahead the night before and put in an order that they will reserve for you.
You can also get breakfast sandwiches and minidoughts, which I haven’t tried yet, but they are always sold out by the time I get there.
6 (Tie) Aqui Me Quedo and Aqui Me Quedo II
Aqui Me Quedo
622 Park Street
Hartford, CT 06106
Aqui Me Quedo is one of the best Spanish restaurants in Hartford. It is great and quick to get food, ranging from pollo con arroz (chicken with rice) to empanadas and alcapurria.
An empanada is a meat filled pastry that is either fried or baked. Traditional Spanish empanadas are filled with beef or chicken. Aqui Me Quedo on Park Street serves pizza empanada (fried) that is quite good and surprisingly light. They call it un pastelillo de pizza. Alcapurria is a deep fried yucca (a root vegtable sort of like potato) or plantain, filled with pork. A pizza empanada and one alcapurria cost me $3.75, As you enter the store, to your left, you will find these treats along with others in a heated glass display. Sometimes, I just order the roast pork or roast chicken, which is sold by the lb. A half pound of roast pork is about $4.50.
Aqui Me Quedo II
150 Albany Avenue
The sister restaurant to the Aqui Me Quedo on Park Street, this one is conviniently located on lower Albany Avenue near Main Street. Very friendly. I go here quite often and order the roast pork with yucca.
8. Lena’s First and Last Pizza
Sun 12-6 PM, Mon-Thurs, Sat 11-10, Friday, 11-1
This place has great slices in a wide variety of styles and flavors, as well as excellent stromboli, calzones and soups. Choose your slice, they will put in the oven to heat it up for you, and you are good to go. You can also get sauce heaped on it or in a side dish to go. The meat lover’s thick slice cost about $5 and will last you for the day. They also have thin crust and stuffed pizza slices. It is my favorite pizza place in Hartford.
9. Los Cubanitos
This is the cheapest place in the city to fill your belly. Start with the sandwiches. Here for $ 2.00 is a pork sandwich. They have a refrigerator full of freshly premade sandwiches, which they quickly reheat in the microwave and then toast with a pull down toasting machine. Takes only a couple minutes. For $2.25 you can get chicken, for $1.50 you can get a Cuban (Ham, cheese and Pork) or a Ham and Cheese.
While there the other day, I got a pork tamale for $1.25. The tamale made of cornmeal and pork comes steaming hot, cooked in a corn stalk. They also have pastries here. There is aways a line of people waiting to get sandwiches, but the line moves fast.
75 cents will get you a delicious Guava filled pastry.
10. Jerk Pit Cafe
2940 Main Street
Mon-Wed 11 am-12 mid.
Thursday 11 am-2 am
Fri & Sat 11 am – 5 am
Sun 2 pm – 2 am
I mentioned Jahm Skee’s doesn’t sell pork. The Jerk Pit Cafe does. The Jerk Pit out on Main Street (near Tower) has the best jerk pork I have had outside of Jamaica. I order a half pound for $7. I get the jerk sauce on the side, and sometimes they give you a couple pieces of bread to go with it. The meat is slow-cooked, peppery, and moist. I dip it the pork in the jerk sauce or sometimes have them drizzle the sauce over the meat. The chicken is also very good. They offer the full array of Jamaican takeout dishes.
This place is open seven days a week and open late.