Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe — Jamaican cuisine to delight every palate
Marilyn Forsythe / Chef Neville Forsythe
First Visit to the Restaurant
The intoxicating aroma of fresh herbs and pungent spices waft through the kitchen door to greet me as I step into the doorway of Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe on Broad Street. Within a few seconds, a waitress with a warm smile said hello and invited me to find a seat wherever I liked. I looked around the room and noticed a handful of customers seated at a few of the tables, nicely arranged inside the modestly spaced building. One side of the wall was painted with a mural showcasing a relaxing spot on the beach in the Caribbean.
I found a table with four chairs by the window and made my way there. Once seated, I gazed outside and smiled, feeling content to be inside this warm café with incredible aromas reminiscent of my grandmother’s kitchen and away from the busy city street bustling with traffic. When the waitress came by to take my order, I was still trying to decide what I wanted to eat. Naturally, my first thought was to go for the jerk chicken. So I asked the waitress whose name I later learned was ‘Zina,’ the best way to combine my order of jerk chicken, seasoned cabbage and rice and peas. With her recommendation, I was set and went for the quarter jerk chicken entree with an option of two sides; cabbage and rice and peas.
Jerk Chicken with Cabbage, Rice, and Peas
My meal came out within minutes of placing the order. It was delightful to see. My eyes feasted on the colorful array of food so artfully arranged on the plate, it looked more like an entrée one would enjoy at a fine dining restaurant than a dish from a casual bistro like this one. The fragrance from the food was absolutely intoxicating for my senses. I began with the jerk chicken and Oh my! The chicken was moist, succulent and flavorful. It had a nice, spicy and smoky taste. Next, I was ready to sample the cabbage. It was not at all what I expected. I was so thrilled by the taste of fresh herbs, light spices and the crispiness of the vegetable. I had never had cabbage like this before and would certainly add this to my list of favorite dishes. The rice and peas had all the right spices and was quite yummy. I had also requested a sampling of the jerk marinade – the extra, extra, extra hot. The waitress had already informed me about the specialness of the sauce. She told me the sauce is only served upon special request because of the nature of its ingredients and the level of spicyness it holds. I told her that I could handle it. And I added the sauce to my dish. For those who enjoy the next level of spicyness, you’ll love this sauce. For all others, trust me when I say the sauce delivers on its name. I kept my cold glass of water close by and sipped as I ate my meal. It was just what my palate was craving.
Handwritten Specialties Menu
The Genesis of the Restaurant
Three and a half years and counting… who knew the genesis of Mrs. B’s Reggae Café really began with serving up traditional rum cakes?
“It all started with the rum cake. I was selling the traditional Jamaican rum cakes at the Chattanooga market and working another temporary office job,” Marilyn recalls.
The traditional Jamaican rum cake is a popular dessert enjoyed by families during holidays and other special occasions. It is a rich, fruit-laden confection soaked in a number of liquors that may include port wine or even stout, but always include rum. Core ingredients also include butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg and few other spices. The addition of alcohol not only flavors this seasonal treat, but also preserves it for weeks. It’s enjoyed with a cup of coffee, tea or a customary glass of rum. it’s a delicacy that has deep cultural and historical roots for Jamaicans.
The rum cakes Marilyn was offering at the market were selling quickly and customers were requesting more. That’s when Marilyn and her husband, Neville began researching local sites where they could not only offer desserts with rum cakes as the main attraction, but also coffee, special cocktails, sandwiches and much more.
They began scouting local sites in the heart of the city, areas with reasonable traffic and accessible to both locals and tourists. They found a spot on Broad Street just on the outskirts of St. Elmo that had housed a few different restaurants over the years, eateries that just didn’t quite catch on with the locals, so the building was up for lease. The Forsythes expressed an interest in leasing the building but had to wait until a prospective client bowed out.
“The building was up for lease and I called the property owner and he said, ‘Oh, I wish you had called me sooner.’ I have somebody looking at it. if things don’t work out I’ll let you know,” Marilyn explained.
And as luck would have it two weeks later, the Forsythes got the phone call they had been waiting for. The property manager accepted their offer to lease the building and they moved forward with their plans to get the site ready for opening day. Mrs. B’s Reggae Café, Chattanooga’s only authentic Jamaican food destination, was born on June 19, 2014.
Meet the Restaurateur
‘Amazing food’ has always been front and center for this Chattanooga restaurateur whose roots hail from Jamaica, some thirty years ago. Marilyn Forsythe and her husband Chef Neville have called the Scenic City home for over three decades. They have three adult children and one grandson.
However, the restaurant is now their full time ‘baby.’ Chef Neville works seven days a week and his day in the restaurant kitchen begins at 9 a.m. and lasts until close to midnight. Marilyn handles the business side of things along with creating those unforgettable rum cakes. She begins her baking prep work in the early morning and has servers that setup the restaurant dining room in preparation for serving lunch and dinner. During the week, they open up Wednesday through Friday for lunch at 11 a.m. and close briefly at 3 p.m. Then, they open again for dinner at 4:30 p.m. until closing time at 10:00 p.m. Saturday it’s a 12 p.m. start until 10:00 p.m. Sunday’s hours are 12 p.m. until 8 p.m.
Quality ingredients and a global culinary expertise are the common thread for the couple behind the cuisine at Mrs B’s. Chef Neville got his start as a Navy cook many years ago and fine tuned his culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America. Also growing up in a household where good food was an everyday occurrence was just a bonus.
“Being a Navy cook was part of my roots, and it’s not just opening cans and cooking that way. I went to school and sat in a classroom and took tests to learn how to cook, keeping cultural and dietary requirements in mind,” Neville said
“You’re cooking for hundreds of people several times a day (referring to his years of service in the Navy.) It was fascinating and wonderful. Then what I learned at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was fine tuning my cooking style. What I do now on a daily basis is to take those experiences and add my special touch.”
His wife, Marilyn who attended Shortwood Teacher’s College in Jamaica, also shares a similar background where excellent tasting food and quality ingredients go hand in hand. She still remembers as a young girl, helping her mother gather organic produce for cooking.
“I remember when I was growing up and helping my mom cook. She had a vegetable garden and she would send me out to get fresh herbs that she would put in the pot right away. And she didn’t just cook Jamaican dishes or cuisine. She also loved to try different dishes as well. She wouldn’t hesitate to grab the cookbook and try something new at least one day out of the week. That would be the day that I am flying home from school to sample her cooking. She would make these meatballs and gravy, green beans and her macaroni and cheese was out of this world. When she makes the traditional ackee (fruit) and saltfish (traditional Jamaican dish), it’s so good. ”
With the bar set pretty high by their parents cooking, the Forsythes say creating amazing dishes with quality ingredients became part of their DNA. That’s another reason why they make their dishes from scratch. It’s a labor of love says Chef Neville but he loves it. Neville is mentoring a young chef in training who helps him with some of the kitchen preparations. He shares his culinary knowledge with him – helping to grow the next generation of dynamic chefs.
“I have a wonderful young man who works with me. He’s been with us for a year. I give him reading assignments. I recently loaned him a book called ‘How to read a French fry,’ it’s a cookbook that focuses on the science of cooking.”
For this restaurateur the science of cooking is essential to how he approaches his cooking which translates into reinventing dishes and experimenting with flavors and textures. Chef Neville travels around the country and brings back new and fresh ideas which he uses to create different dishes and provide diners with a real distinctive experience. With that, customers can expect to see innovative and unique dishes on the restaurant menu from time to time. Marilyn says customers have been very receptive to trying something new.
“We try to introduce folks to different and unique flavors. Too many people think Jamaican food is just jerk chicken or jerk pork and hot peppers. There’s so much more to it. We did a dinner last summer at the restaurant. We invited people to come in and try prepared dishes similar to what you eat at the home of a Jamaican family. People enjoyed the experience. It was a family style dinner with everyone sitting around a big table having conversation.
Every dish is made from scratch including the beef patties which is a staple at a Jamaican restaurant. Chef Neville makes the dough and rolls them out one at a time. Cooking to please varied palates takes years of experience and planning. And Jamaican cuisine can be different for every family. Some may like it hot and others may prefer a milder flavor. There are vegetarian options and gluten free offerings as well.
Chef Neville’s Special
Let’s explore some of Chef Neville’s special creations. A visit to this unique Jamaican restaurant is not complete without a sampling of a few of Chef Neville’s special appetizers which includes the award winning Lollipop Jerk Wings and the Reggae Rolls. For those adventurous types, a taste of De Voodoo Chicken will make your dining experience here truly unforgettable. A word of caution — it is not for the faint of heart! Take my word for it!
The Reggae Rolls which can be great for special occasions, is a play on the Jamaican reggae theme, they resemble spring rolls and are filled with various vegetables including carrots then deep fried. When you bite into it, you’ll hear a crunch sound and the flavor is full and robust.
Then there are the Lollipop Wings which are regular full size wings, cut with the bones sticking out. These are also great for parties. Chef Neville was first introduced to the idea of lollipop wings while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. He decided to bring it to Chattanooga and added his special touch. Now It’s become quite a hit with customers. And it’s no wonder–the wings have won many awards.
Lollipop Wings & Reggae Rolls
The Jerk Stuffed Burger is a whole lot of burger with a flavorful experience. It can easily be named the best darn burger in town. They’ve got my son’s vote and he has had many a burger both near and far.
The process for making the burger begins with a 10.5 ounce ground beef, which is then seasoned with various spices and then mixed in with chopped jerk chicken. It takes 20 minutes to prepare. It is served on a fresh bun with lettuce and tomatoes plus a side of grilled potatoes garnished with rosemary. If you’re in a hurry, the restaurateur will gladly recommend another dish. But it is worth the wait, if you can spare the time.
Jerk Stuffed Burger
One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes –De Voodoo Chicken- first appeared to Chef Neville in a dream.
“I woke up one morning and it came to me. At the time, I had no idea what it was going to be, but I knew it would be something special. I thought about it, and drew from my culinary experiences, and then I knew what I wanted and just began creating the dish.”
What’s in the dish? Boneless skinless chicken breasts, sautéed onions, bell peppers, hot peppers (scotch bonnet or habanera peppers – they use whichever one is available) shallots and garlic. The dish is plated with rice, sliced pineapples and fresh coconut, these help with the flavor and softens the pepper a little bit. According to Chef Neville, this dish has become their number one seller. The term Voodoo is not always warmly embraced because of its religious connotations but in this particular case, the name adds an element of mystery to the restaurant menu options.
And oh the cabbage, the cabbage is a must. Customers rave about this side dish which takes just minutes to prepare. It takes four minutes altogether. First, you boil the cabbage in salted water for two to three minutes. Then cool it off and when a customer places the order, it is then sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs so it remains nice and crispy, not overcooked. It’s like no other cabbage dish.
The drinks are refreshing, colorful and very tasty. There are a variety of non-alcoholic beverages along with beer. And if you are in the mood for wine, the restaurant has a partnership with Imbibe, a local wine and spirits shop – customers can contact Imbibe for a recommendation on the best wine selections to pair with Jamaican dishes offered at Mrs B’s. Since Mrs. B’s doesn’t offer wine, they invite customers to bring their own and just note there will be a small corkage fee.
The Infamous Voodoo Chicken
Making the rum cake
This is Marilyn’s specialty. She has been making rum cakes for as long as she can remember. The signature traditional rum cake is sweet, succulent and delicious. It’s so delightful that customers from California to Canada and Jamaica order them regularly, sometimes by the dozen.
“It takes a good four hours to make, between prepping, mixing and baking. When you do something for so long you start to figure out different little things about it – the science behind it. I’m realizing certain things are going to make it even better and better. I have customers who tell me these cakes are so good and I say wait until you taste the next one.”
Staying connected and much more
Staying connected is part of what keeps Marilyn busy, besides taking care of customers. She’s made sure that Mrs. B’s Reggae Café customers can remain engaged on social media. The restaurant has a following on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The Yelp reviews were organically established. Customers began posting reviews after their dining experience at Mrs B’s which have been overwhelmingly positive. And so the Forsythes let it continue, grateful for grassroots effort which gives them insight on feedback from customers.
You can connect with and follow Mrs. B’s Reggae Café on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A new partnership with Uber Eats set to launch in mid-March of this year will offer food delivery for customers, which the restaurateurs hope will give the business a much needed boost.
Website traffic could also see a bump. Customers can order a variety of Chef Neville’s special sauce creations online. There’s always an option to call the restaurant for a more personalized service. They can package several at a time and minimize shipping costs.
There is a steady stream of customers but like any business, there’s always room for growth. Catering has provided some additional business. In fact, the restaurant receives requests for catering parties and special events from time to time. However, they limit their catering orders so they can focus their attention on restaurant customers — ensuring that each customer that walks through the restaurant doors enjoys a unique dining experience. When the Forsythes do agree to cater an event, they first invite the client to come in to discuss their catering needs. This allows them to make that personal connection which is such a part of their warm Jamaican hospitality.
Jamaican International Soccer Team’s Signatures From Their Visit
Words of wisdom from Mrs B’s for those trying Jamaican food for the first time
Just come in with an open mind…
The first time people come into the restaurant, Marilyn Forsythe says she tells customers to start with the most popular dish from Jamaica which for many is jerk chicken or jerk pork. Other well known cuisine are rice and peas and curry goat.
“Start with those basics then taste and explore other dishes when you visit again. If you live here in town, it means you’ll be back again, because the restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes that will please just about any palate. Not everything is hot but everything is flavorful.”
“I had a couple come in one time and ask me, what is the best thing on the menu? And I said, everything is amazing. I’m not just saying that. You have to decide to try a dish and then the next time venture out and try something else,” she said.
An open invitation
You’re invited to embark upon a unique dining adventure… Chef Neville and Marilyn promise an unforgettable dining experience where quality ingredients and amazing food will bring you back again and again.
Mrs B’s Reggae Café is unassuming. When you walk in, you’ll take in the view quickly and will probably briefly gaze upon the mural painted by a local artist featured on the right hand side of the wall, showcasing a Caribbean theme. The scene paints a picture of a relaxing spot along the beach on the coast. If you happen to visit during the evening, you will most likely hear the upbeat tempo of Jamaican music playing in the background.
Expect the light hearted laughter and bubbly warm personalities of the restaurant owners and wait staff to make you feel truly at home. Yeah mon!!!
Visit Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe
3103 Broad St, Chattanooga, TN 37408
Phone: (423) 702-5808
About the Author:
Chinyere’s WordPress Blog
Chinyere Ubamadu is a marketing communications professional and freelance writer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a food enthusiast who enjoys global cuisine and traveling. Her travels and foodie adventures have taken her to four continents. When she’s not applying her creativity and problem solving skills to meet business needs, she’s challenging herself hiking, running or practicing yoga.