Venue Review: Back a Yard Caribbean American Grill
Unless you live in the neighborhood, or suds your duds at the laundromat next door, you would never discover tiny Back a Yard, which turns out incredible Caribbean food for one or hundreds at bargain prices.
I should know. I drove right past the Menlo Park storefront several times a week almost all summer long.
But now that I know what I was missing, I'll be pulling over regularly when I traverse the stretch of Willow Road between Highway 101 and the Dumbarton Bridge. And next time I'm in charge of the food for a group function, I'm putting Back a Yard's amazing jerk chicken on the menu.
Back a Yard restaurant and catering company is the work of chef Robert Simpson, a native of Jamaica who trained in Belgium and at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then went on to a career in high-level hotel cooking. A year ago, he opened Back a Yard. (The name means ''back home,'' as in ''This soup tastes like back-a-yard,'' Simpson says.)
As a restaurant, the brightly painted shop is primarily a to-go operation. If you're lucky enough to snag one of the three tables, though, you will eat your meal off very nice plastic plates, with real metal flatware.
Jamaica's best-known culinary export may be jerk seasoning, the blend of spices, herbs, chiles, onions and garlic that is rubbed on meat before grilling. Back a Yard's menu leaves no jerk possibility unexplored, including tofu. We tried jerk chicken ($8.50) and salmon fillet ($9). Both were moist and perfectly cooked under a thick blanket of spicy but not overwhelmingly hot jerk seasoning. If you want to live dangerously, avail yourself of the bottle of Jamaican hot sauce on the table.
Oxtails ($12.50), listed on the specials board but available daily, are indeed special. Our plate practically overflowed with silky, spoon-tender circles of meat. The dark and deeply flavored sauce had just enough heat to linger in the back of your throat and tease you into taking another bite.
The accompanying cup of homey chicken soup featured generous chunks of carrot and zucchini and -- surprise -- a piece of chicken wing on the bone.
Meals come with a mostly rice version of rice and black beans, a mini green salad and fried plantains good enough to erase any unhappy fried plantain experiences in your past.
Other Caribbean specialty items on the menu include curry goat (Thursdays and Saturdays only, $11.50), coco bread ($1.50) and corn festivals ($2 for four), which are like little Indian fry breads pumped up with cornmeal.
But Back a Yard's menu covers more familiar territory, too, with barbecued ribs, chicken and sausage, a full range of fried seafood and even a couple of meal-size salads. So everyone in your party should be able to find something to like.
Desserts are house-made and offered on a rotating basis. Back a Yard's version of pecan pie ($2.50) is non-gooey and not overly sweet. Key lime ($2.25) was a bit bouncy. I hope the dark rum and Port-steeped Jamaican black cake ($2.50) is available next time I stop by, which will be very soon.
Back a Yard Caribbean American Grill
1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park. (650) 323-4244. www.backayard.net.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; noon-8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Types of food: Caribbean, mostly, plus barbecue and fried seafood
Average meal price: About $10
Good choices Flavor-packed jerk chicken ($8.50), spoon-tender oxtails ($12.50), perfect fried plantains
Not recommended Jamaican savory beef patty in a tough pastry shell ($1.85)
Attitude Very, very nice
Amenities Full catering menu. Three tables, so you can eat in if you're lucky
Vegetarian optionsJerk tofu ($8.25); Jamaican savory vegetarian patty ($1.85)
Drinks Nice lineup of Jamaican sodas, including a knock-your-socks-off ginger beer ($1.75).
Eat in car If all three tables are taken, you may have to.
Next-day edibility Oxtails were even better reheated.
Who goes there Neighbors, techies from nearby companies
Credit cards Yes
Parking On-street, and it's a small street.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.