The Virgin Islands are so ballyhooed for their beaches, boats and trade winds that their cuisine normally takes the back seat, but that doesn't meant you shouldn't sharpen your knife and fork. Curried meats, hot-spiced soups and hulking shellfish are on the menu, with mango-sweetened microbrews and fresh-from-the-barrel rum to wash it down.
Here's a list of highlights to check off your gastronomic to-do list:
Snacking on pates and johnnycakes
Pates (pah-tays) are fried dough pockets stuffed with spiced chicken, beef or salt fish. They're the islands' version of an empanada. Locals buy the warm, fragrant puffs from street stalls or bakeries and nibble them on the go. Hawkers at the Vendors' Plaza on St Thomas or at any beach snack shack waft fine ones. Another quintessential nosh is the johnnycake: a golden, slightly sweet disk of fried bread. Miss Lucy's on St John and Midtown Restaurant on Tortola sizzle up star versions that are crunchy outside and airy inside.
Slurping a bowl of callaloo
The Caribbean version of gumbo, callaloo soup has its roots in West Africa. Spinach is often used as the base, stirred with okra, various meats (anything from fish to pig's tail and smoked turkey), onions, thyme and hot peppers. A dollop of fungi (a polenta-like cornmeal) usually floats in the middle. Gladys' Cafe on St Thomas whips up a renowned bowl, and one look at the plate of peppers sitting on the counter tells you she makes a spicy one.
Cracking an Anegada lobster
The reefs around Anegada – the British Virgins' most far-flung island – teem with massive crustaceans. They differ from their counterparts in northern climes, as Anegada lobsters have no claws; rather, the meat is in the tail. Every restaurant on the island serves them, usually grilled on the beach in a converted oil drum and spiced with the chef’s secret seasonings. The critters arrive sliced in half on a plate, with the juicy meat face up and prime for forking into. Lobster Trap and Wonky Dog show how it's done.
Eating like a Rastafarian
Rasta restaurants are good bets for vegetarians, since many embrace 'ital' principles for healthy life energy and avoid meat, eggs and dairy products. St Croix's Ital in Paradise and St Thomas' Nile Valley are typical: small, humble spots with a daily menu based on what is freshly picked at the market. Kale salad, roasted cauliflower, lentil patties or curried tofu stew might result to fill your plate, plus a tall, cool glass of mango juice to go with it.
Sipping rum at the source
Island distilleries have been pumping out high-proof happy juice since the 1700s, when sugarcane plantations covered the area. Callwood Rum Distillery is one of the Caribbean's oldest; the ancient stone building hides in the jungle by Tortola's Cane Garden Bay and has been boiling heady elixirs for more than 300 years. St Croix's Cruzan Rum Distillery isn't far behind in age –colonial sugar mill ruins mark the entrance, while gingerbread smells (from the molasses) drift from the production warehouses. Samples flow freely at each facility, so you'll know your light white from cane from guava rum by day's end.
Comparing conch fritters
The meat from local conch shells is an island favorite. Cooks pound the chewy, clam-like substance until it's tender, batter it, season it with cayenne, sage and other herbs, and plop it into crackling oil. Conch fritters emerge, a beach bar staple that's perfecto alongside a cold beer. Every chef worth her frying pan claims to have the Virgins' best recipe – Bell at Cow Wreck Beach Resort on Anegada and Neil at De Loose Mongoose on Tortola are among those vying for supremacy.
Spicing up a roti
Rotis are burrito-like flatbread wraps. Curried chicken, beef, goat or chickpeas plump the flaky dough, while chili-laden chutney amps up the heat. Restaurants serve them for lunch or dinner, and some even devote their skills entirely to the dish. Take Ruby Roti Queen Restaurant on Tortola. The proprietress knows the regulars coming in for their fix, and when they say 'spicy' she lets them have it. So be warned! Singh's Fast Food on St Croix is a similar cheap and cheerful joint with rotis galore, including an unusual tofu version.
Swigging straight from the coconut
It's hard to say no to a guy or gal with a machete. When the wielder offers to lop off the top of a coconut and poke in a straw so you can sip the refreshing water inside, who's to argue? Vendors at street stalls and beach bars do the honors all around the Virgins. They might even offer to pour in some rum and fruity mixers if you ask nicely. The strand at St Thomas' popular Magens Bay is a good place to go nutty.
You'll often see locals enter a modest little bakery and then emerge with a smile, munching something in a brown paper bag. Follow those people! They know where true island treats pop out of the oven, places like Daylight Bakery & Diamond Barrel on St Thomas and Gary's Bakery (33 King St) on St Croix. Ogle the glass case and point to your picks: a gooey guava tart, sticky raisin roll, warm macadamia-nut cookie. Or maybe a bright pink sugar cake (grated coconut cooked down and hardened) or piece of round dum bread (flour sweetened with coconut and baked in a special 'dum' oven). Insulin-stoking options abound.
Quaffing island microbrews
The scene is still relatively small, but island beer makers are getting their hops on. St John Brewers has the largest reach. Bottles of its citrusy Mango Pale Ale chill at most local bars, while the brewer's tap room pours toasty Coconut Brown Ale, lip-smackingly sour MonGose and other eclectic suds. Brew STX concocts lovely Belgian-style wheat beer and India pale ale at its seaside brewpub on St Croix, while St Thomas' teeny Frenchtown Brewing makes a delicious saison.
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