First they bonded over music, then food, then Jamaica. "We went to Kingston friends, but we came back family," says Yoni Reinhartz, one half of the partnership that makes up Pimento Jamaican Kitchen. The food-court gem took the grand prize on television's food competition hit Food Court Wars, winning a space in Burnsville Shopping Center plus ten thousand bucks to make the brand. They've done just that, and come fall, a "half-service" storefront will grace Eat Street.
Tomme Beevas is a Kingston native who landed in Minneapolis as a Cargill exec. As fate would have it, he also landed in a house next door to Reinhartz, a hip-hop artist with a serious yen for Jamaican rap.
"We were doing that passive-aggressive neighbor thing, just saying hello but not much else. Tomme is good at disguising his accent because of his position in corporate America. But one day I asked him the time and he said, 'Tree 'o clock.'
Busted! I said: 'Where are you from?!'"
Within the hour, he was knocking on Beevas's door with an MP3 of his favorite Jamaican artists. Beevas did him one better by playing all the new shit that hadn't even been released in the U.S. yet. You could say the rest was history.
Next, Beevas started firing up the grill, and the intoxicating aromas of jerk chicken had all the neighbors finding excuses to drift over on the wafts of smoke. "I was the Kramer to his Seinfeld," is how Reinhartz describes it when the allspice berries got the better of him. "I'd be going over there with my napkin tucked into my shirt."
Things went on this way for a while, with Reinharz perusing his music career (he helped produce a gold album for Orthodox Jewish rapper Matisyahu, as well as helped introduce Dessa to the local music scene prior to her joining Doomtree) and Beevas working in global community relations for Cargill.
But Reinhartz couldn't shake the bug. The appeal of Jamaican food had bit him, hard. "I think it's interesting that people, including myself, have such a strong connection to the brand of Jamaica — Bob Marley, the beach, all sorts of cultural aspects, but the food is still kind of mysterious."
He credits the mystery to the lack of entrepreneurs lifting the veil from the mom-and-pop operations, and "crossing over" to the general public using the fast-casual Chipotle model, along with all the other things we know and love about Jamaica — island culture, good music, and great hospitality.
They've secured a lease on the old Kem Coffee Bar space at 2524 Nicollet Ave., which has the added benefit of a large "urban patio" space, including a stage. Beevas says they plan to turn the place into a "Kingston-style W.A. Frost patio," and draw upon the Jamaican habit of sitting outside with "the smell of jerk, popping a Red Stripe, knocking dominoes, and listening to live reggae."
"Beat that, if you will," he quips, with not a little civic pride.
All the recipes come from his family, mostly from his grandma "Babylou," who got tired of him pulling on her pleated skirts to get closer to the cooking and let him have at it himself by the time he was 15, taking over the big family Sunday suppers all on his own. Now, they've got a Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained chef, Sergey Kogan, who has streamlined and systematized the recipes, which include jerk chicken and pork, a weekend special of braised oxtail, which never fails to sell out, coconut rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, curry chicken, and more.
Both men say they're pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic following the food has garnered way out in the 'burbs, from catering to the large suburban Guyanese population, to the middle-aged white folk who regularly come back for seconds to take home to spouses after cleaning their plates. They note that the food is not only delicious, but falls roundly into line with modern ideas around healthy eating habits: gluten and dairy free, high in protein and vegetables, a bit of rice, lots of spice.
"It's boisterously flavored, and you can eat a huge plate of it and feel good afterward. It makes me want to go out and dance," says Reinhartz, pointing to the food's lack of reliance on salt and fat and instead spices, curries, coconut, and acids.
Are you sold yet? What if I told you that you'll be able to get that Red Stripe too, or a glass of wine, and maybe even a rum punch if they can get a variance to sell a spirit? While the lease is signed, they're still trying to secure $30,000 funding gap, which makes up about 20 percent of their overall budget. There's 39 days to go on their Kickstarter campaign, and you can donate by clicking here. The big-spender rewards include a personalized two-night tour of Kingston with Tomme's family, which they say is the most authentic Jamaican experience you'll ever get.
In addition to feeling irie for doing so, you'll be adding a new aroma to Eat Street (have you ever caught a sniff of fresh allspice berries toasting? Truly intoxicating), as well as immersing yourself (and the rest of us) in Jamaican culture in a unique way.
"It's not just about the food — it's about boosting Jamaica in general. It's going to be a really authentic experience," said Reinhartz.
"I just love watching customers reveling in my culture," Beevas adds with a big, infectious smile, no masking the accent.
Opens this fall on Eat Street
In the meantime, get a taste at Burnsville Center Food Court, which will remain open, along with catching them at various outdoor festivals including the upcoming Uptown Art Fair and this Sunday's Uptown Food Truck Fair.