A taste of the islands

A taste of the islands

Agnes’ All-Natural Grill offers healthy-and-fast dining

By Tom Baker

Every once in a while, my wife, in a sarcastic-but-clearly-serious tone will ask: “So when are you taking me to Jamaica?”  We laugh about it for a moment (well, I do at least), and then continue on with our day.  So when the editor of the DCP called me and asked if I had heard of this healthy, Caribbean-influenced fast food joint just north of downtown, I had no idea that I’d have an opportunity to ever-so-slightly-and-briefly satisfy our yearning for island life.

Just recently celebrating their one-year anniversary after opening in August 2011, Agnes’ All Natural Grill resides in a former Rally’s location just north of downtown.  In between the Taco Bell and former Royal Cocktail Lounge and Motel on Keowee Street sits the freshly-painted orange and green building that lauds their vision to “eat right and live life longer.”  Agnes’ is run by Jose and Nicole Estremera – Jose’s mother, Mary Agnes Estremera, hailed from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago and ran a catering company and restaurant for many years, inspiring both the name and style of cooking for their business.   Frustrated by the lack of fast and healthy options, they decided to open a place offering a fresh menu with better health in mind.  They won’t cook with ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, MSG or pork products, and offer gluten-free options as well.

Having little experience with foods from the Caribbean, I decided to try a variety of items in order to get a good idea of what the region had to offer.  Perusing the menu, you’ll see that there are options ranging from fish, beef, chicken, turkey and veggie burgers, to the occasional goat curry if you’re looking to really expand your horizons.  On my first go-round I went with a fried tilapia sandwich, but on their special Coco Bread -a “Caribbean-style” soft bread that could have been a cross between white bread and a donut.  It had a slight sweetness, was exceptionally soft and reminded me of a really great yeast roll – think comfort food, big time.  The fish was breaded in what appeared to be a seasoned cornmeal, and the sandwich came with lettuce, tomato, red onion and tartar sauce – choose grilled for a healthier version.  I also tried a side of the hand cut fries, which were very good, but if you’re looking for something lighter you can opt for a grilled vegetable skewer of squash, zucchini, pepper, onion and mushroom.  The fries were fresh and sprinkled with just a touch of coarse salt, but I would recommend eating them quickly as they’ll lose their crispiness when traveling.  Overall, a great lunch for an even better price – $6.50.

Daily specials being offered, I decided to check out the chicken curry with some rice and peas and, of course, Coco Bread.  When I opened the box and saw the rice with pigeon peas and the shredded chicken with a thigh, I was excited.   The curry wasn’t spicy but had great flavor, the chicken was super tender and the bread was perfect for sopping up any remaining sauce.  At $9.50 it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, and worth it.  Another chicken dish to try is the Chicken Wing Dinner.  For $6.00 you’ll get six wings, fried or grilled, plain, jerk or barbeque, and two sides.  We chose the grilled jerk, and they are fully legitimate.  Seasoned liberally, you get the subtle heat as well as an underlying clove from the spice – really good.  If you just happen to be driving by and want a quick snack, you can order them at .95/each and grab a few for the road.  Any concerns with spiciness should be put to rest as they offer several beverages that quell the heat.  Their lemonade, made with brown sugar, had just a touch of caramel flavor that was unique and pleasant, and plenty sweet to offset any spicy.  For a more robust – and rumored aphrodisiac – treat try the Peanut Punch, a common beverage found in Trinidad and Tobago.  Made from peanut butter, milk and spices, I went back three times before I could get my hands on one – I guess the rumors are true.

My only beef – pun intended – would have been with their beef patty, another traditional Caribbean item that has its roots in European influences in the region.  A pastry filled with seasoned beef, it’s commonly eaten in Coco Bread, but we found it rather plain, especially in the bread.  I also found that they seem to use a bit more salt in their seasoning than I’m used to, but see above re: their great beverages.  Otherwise the food is good, the people are friendly and it does in fact present a pretty affordable and somewhat healthier option when you’re in the mood for something quick.

So although we may have enjoyed only a brief trip to the Caribbean where the beaches and palm trees were notably absent, someday we’ll be eating at a Caribbean beachside stand and thinking of Mary Agnes and that little green and orange building in North Dayton.

Agnes’ All-Natural Grill is located at 1438 N. Keowee St. For more information, call 937.368.8787.

Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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