Caribbean Haven
1780 S. Victoria Ave., suite E

Caribbean Haven came onto the Ventura restaurant scene with a bang via social media (Who didn’t see a photo or two of the promisingly delicious food pop up on its Facebook feed?) and a whole lot of word of mouth. Judging by the opening weekend crowds, the hype is real. Did it, and can it, make good?

My first visit came on opening weekend and we quickly left — the restaurant was clearly popular and wait times for simple dishes were up to an hour long. No worries, we decided to return the following weekend, when we found it busy but efficient. Unfortunately, half of the vegan items that drew us in were marked off of the extensive menu with black tape, leaving relatively little for us to choose from.

An odd but interesting choice for a place dubbed Caribbean Haven was the Sweet ’n’Spicy Tofu ($12.50), served with Rice ’n’ Peas and a spicy coleslaw salad. To pair, we selected the vegetable lumpia ($4), five spring rolls served with the chef’s signature sweet and spicy sauce, and the jerk tofu salad ($12).

First, let it be known that the portions are very generous. The Sweet ’n’ Spicy Tofu was enough for two, with hearty chunks of tofu drenched in a gooey, bright-red sweet sauce that could have used a bit more spice, but was delicious all the same. The salad, being the only “jerk” item we ordered, was the surprise hit — how can tofu be so flavorful? Find out at Caribbean Haven, I suppose. Lots of spice but not too much to assault the senses elevated the dish from mere salad to worthy entrée.

The vegetable lumpia stood out as a great bargain. Though not terribly different from spring rolls one might find on any Chinese restaurant’s menu, they, too, were well cooked and much loved when dipped into the sweet and spicy sauce, the same sauce served with the tofu.

For dessert, we picked out a nice slice of cassava pie ($5), a somewhat gelatinous pie made with coconut milk. ‘Twas like relaxing beachside on a plate.

Being in a vegan/vegetarian relationship meant that we weren’t giving the restaurant a fair shake, but Caribbean Haven hosts Vegan Fridays, so we’ll have to make a trip back for the myriad of island flavors that have landed in Ventura.

After all, jerk chicken and many, many other meat-centric items are clearly the focus on the menu (despite the social media push that the place served many vegan dishes, which we were told they have halved since opening), so on a separate visit, Arts & Entertainment editor Nancy Schaffer gave it a shot as well, sampling the restaurant’s Caribbean and Pacific Island offerings. — Chris O’Neal

Jerk sauce is, of course, the famous Jamaican concoction of spices, garlic, ginger and peppers — and no Caribbean eatery worth its allspice would leave this traditional preparation off the menu. Poultry, tri-tip and shrimp can all be slathered in jerk (your choice of mild or spicy) and grilled, served with sides as an entree, or as a sandwich. But one of the restaurant’s most popular jerk presentations is the Jerk Chicken Rasta Pasta. Perhaps not traditional, but quite delicious. The flavor on the grilled chicken thighs goes straight through the meat, which is tender and juicy. They are served alongside a generous platter of noodles topped with onions, bell peppers and broccoli, and smothered in a delicious creamy brown sauce, which also is flavored with the jerk.

We also tried the shrimp skewers, basted with the garlic-herb butter, for something different. They arrived hot from the grill, two skewers with big, fat shrimp threaded with charred bell pepper and served over rice and coleslaw. Like the chicken, the shrimp was grilled perfectly, not overdone, leaving the seafood plump and juicy — and the garlic-herb flavoring added a noticeable tang. The skewers were consumed very quickly, and we almost wished we’d placed a second order.

For variety, we decided to also try something from the Filipino (pinoy) side of the menu. I love pork belly, and the crispy fried lechon kawali was a nice way to have it . . . but compared to the flavor powerhouses of the jerk and shrimp, it was a little underwhelming. — Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer