A few months ago I noticed Desert Island Eatery, a small restaurant squeezed in between a pizza place and a barbershop on Campbell Avenue. At first, I had my reservations—it was hard to tell if the place was a hole-in-the-wall or a diamond-in-the-rough. However, I had just begun a quest for the best plate of plantains in Tucson and the bright artwork on the window advertised vegan Caribbean lunch specials. In the interest of supporting my local plantain dealer, I decided to give it a shot. To be completely honest, I haven’t wanted to go to anywhere else since. Desert Island Eatery is just that good.
The restaurant is family-owned and run by Jamillia Joseph, a Virginia native whose cooking pays homage to her island roots. Joseph does everything from serving up tasty vegan versions of classic Caribbean dishes to making sure the restaurant is spotlessly clean, all while balancing a rambunctious toddler on her hip. If you’re lucky enough to stop by on a day when Joseph has cooked a batch of her homemade vegan mac ‘n cheese, order it. You can thank me later.
In a city best known for its Mexican restaurants, Desert Island Eatery is serving something different—Caribbean-Mexican fusion food with flavors from all over the world. Joseph refers to herself as an “island child at heart,” having grown up with the culinary influence of family members from Barbuda, Antigua, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Nevis, and the Virgin Islands.
Nearly everything on Desert Island Eatery’s continuously evolving menu is cooked from scratch and made to order. When you’re tucking into a steaming hot plate of plantains with johnny cakes (my personal favorite), you’ll agree it was worth the wait.
“It’s hard to say that Desert Island Eatery is of any particular island, more so that we just try to make sure the flavors are authentic,” Joseph said. “That’s our niche, just being different,” she added.
Joseph’s idea to add a Southwestern twist to her Caribbean recipes was inspired by Desert Island Eatery’s current location, which was formerly a popular Mexican restaurant.
“I didn’t want to lose the traffic here and my thought was, if we can combine the two [cuisines] we can get all parties to sit at one table and really just enjoy themselves,” Joseph said.
The result is a perfect combination of familiar favorites and exotic flavors. Classic dishes such as nachos and tacos get an island revamp in Joseph’s hands, with tasty additions like Jamaican jerk seasoning, homemade apple chutney, and sautéed cabbage. Some of her most popular dishes include vegan curry chickpeas and potatoes, BBQ tofu, and curry vegan nachos. There are plenty of options for meat lovers, too, like a plate of jerk or curry chicken, or a Swai fish burger. For the perfect fusion mash-up, try a jerk carne asada burrito and a glass of sorrel, the island version of Mexican jamaica.
One of the restaurant’s specialties is an island taco, Joseph’s take on popular Trinidadian “doubles.” The taco is a shell of handmade dough, fried and stuffed with either curry chickpeas and potatoes or jerk chicken, then topped with apple chutney and slaw.
Joseph encourages people to come into her restaurant with an open mind. Many of the menu items vary depending on what she’s cooking that day, so don’t be afraid to ask what’s available off-menu.
“My goal is to one day have this be a restaurant where, what our family is eating for dinner, is what you’re eating,” Joseph said.
It’s not hard to feel right at home as I sit across from Jamillia Joseph and enjoy a glass of sorrel. The atmosphere of Desert Island Eatery makes you want to sit back, relax, and appreciate the little things in life. Desert Island Eatery isn’t just about amazing food; everything, from the hand-painted teal dining chairs to the reggae bubbling from the speakers in the back, says, “Welcome to the family.”
Desert Island Eatery
2513 N. Campbell Avenue