.The Calypso Rose

Cool jerk lands in Emeryville

At Verna McGowan’s The Calypso Rose, the biggest seller is a Guyanese oxtail pepper pot. “I can’t keep enough of that in house,” McGowan said. “It is my number one all day long.” The chef described the taste of the dish as similar to eating a pot roast. She learned how to make it from her Guyanese ex-mother-in-law. “I met my husband when I was 16 or 17 years old,” McGowan recalled. “I’ve been in that family a really long time, so she taught me a lot of the dishes.”

McGowan started in the hospitality business with an event and catering company called Dos Gardenias. For several years, she also cooked for the author Alice Walker as her personal chef in Berkeley. But The Calypso Rose in Emeryville’s Public Market is her first brick and mortar. Before our interview, McGowan sent me an email in which she noted the challenge of cooking in a faster food environment. Traditionally, Caribbean dishes take hours to prepare.

When we spoke on the phone, McGowan explained that she and her general manager, Mimi Garcia, are “very focused and deliberate.” They achieve their rich flavor profiles with spice rubs, curry and jerk sauces, and overnight marinades. “We grill chicken first, so it can get grill marks and have a smoky taste,” she said. “Then we roast the chicken until it’s tender.” 

The Calypso Kitchen, McGowan asserted, doesn’t freeze food or cut corners with canned products. “Everything is guaranteed to be fresh when you eat it,” she said. Her oxtail stew is aromatic, dark and sweet, but it has to simmer for a while to earn all those adjectives. On a recent trip back to her native New York, McGowan noticed that oxtail is all the rage there. Served in stews, as a sandwich or with pasta, she said, “It’s just gone crazy!” 

“There’s a lot of love that goes into my food,” McGowan said. “It matters to me what people are getting when I hand them that container of food.” I could taste that care and attention to detail in my container of shrimp curry ($20.50). Devoted as I have been to Thai and Indian curries, The Calypso Rose’s version offers a satisfying Caribbean alternative. 

McGowan makes her fried plantain strips ($8) with sea salt, when the fruit is green. They’re in season now. But when a plantain appears as a component in her other dishes, it has to be ripe. “The skin can be anywhere from a dark yellow to black,” she explained. “If they are black, that’s better than their being green.” The chef takes a simple approach to cooking them. “We just do a straight plantain—cut on a slant, and deep fry it. Period and game over. No sugar spread. No cinnamon gloss. That’s the way it’s supposed to be eaten.”   

Since opening eight months ago, McGowan hasn’t really had to modify the menu. The only dish that wasn’t a hit was pernil, a Latin American take on roast pork. “What sells in my restaurant is chicken, fish and beef,” she said. 

The Calypso Rose also serves two beverages made from scratch—a ginger lemonade and a sorrel or hibiscus drink. McGowan’s mother-in-law also taught her how to make the sorrel drink and, she said, the ginger lemonade is not from a concentrate. “We break down ginger and lemons, and there are assorted spices that go into both drinks,” she explained.

The chef knew she was taking a risk in returning to the food industry, even as the pandemic was winding down. But from what she’s noticed, the Public Market is continuing to rebound and grow. “I believe that people have their favorites, and they will support the foods they enjoy the most,” she said.  

What she couldn’t have anticipated was the ongoing effort to attract new restaurants, and new diners, to Bay Street Emeryville. To date, there aren’t any Caribbean restaurants in vitro at that shopping mall down the street. Chef McGowan’s Calypso Rose is a part of what makes dining out in the East Bay such a unique culinary ecosystem. 

The Calypso Rose, open Wed to Sun 11:30am–8pm. 5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville. www.thecalypsorose.com.

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