Nestled in the heart of downtown, along Dexter avenue, sits an escape outside your comfort zone, ready to transport your taste buds to a more tropical locale. Island Delight opened its full service restaurant in 2017, after it’s first iteration, a counter service lunch bar, became a niche sensation at local Maxwell Airforce Base.
Melissa Smith, owner, operator, and chef, says her husband and co-owner, Richard Smith, convinced her to cook up a jerk chicken storm one night for a group of his fellow officers. Her spice sensation went off with a bang and Melissa was urged to open her own restaurant and share those flavors on a regular basis. Years later and the original outpost is still open for lunch, run by Melissa’s parents, while she keeps up with what’s going on downtown, serving lunch and dinner for couples and crowds (a private event space in the back accommodates large parties or spillover from the main dining room on busy nights).
Although completing its third year downtown, with many reviews spreading by word of mouth, Melissa still once saw a time when Southerners were a little skeptical to trying unfamiliar foods. Notwithstanding, one of her most popular dishes, outside the jerk chicken of course, has come to be the oxtails, braised in juicy goodness and served alongside a healthy portion of rice, beans and cabbage. A good hearty meal to say the least. Pair it with something from the juice bar or go for a Caribbean soda or ginger beer to complete the experience. Melissa says while she refuses to conform her Caribbnean food to the expectations of an American palate, her one concession is peach tea, which represents the island, but also speaks to locals.
Other menu items include classic beef patties, salads and soups, curry, fried chicken, fish and vegetable dishes for those sticking to the greens. A little festival bread or island slaw on the side wouldn’t hurt anybody.
Every colorful table at Island Delight features a bottle of scotch bonnet hot sauce, commonplace in the Caribbean and known for its sweet heat. Sometimes Melissa makes the drive to the farmer’s market in Atlanta to find specialty Jamaician goods, including those prized peppers, to bring back to her Montgomery-based kitchen.
When asked about her culinary background, Melissa credits her hard-working mom for instilling a natural and intuitive approach to cooking food in the Caribbean as a young girl. Without any recipes, she formed a flair for flavor by sheer experimentation. When she didn’t know how much spice to add, her mother told her to try a little bit and see what tastes good or until “the ancestors whisper in your ear,” Melissa recounts, laughing.
Since 2000, Melissa and her family have called Montgomery home, after her husband, military service carried them away from Jamaica. She confides what she misses most about her homeland is the people - the way happiness comes easy in the Caribbean. You can’t step off the plane and smell the air without feeling it. Until that vacation day comes, we can all at least revel some island treats down on Dexter any day of the week. Hours vary.