Let your taste buds escape the cold at Ava's Taste of the Caribbean

If a beach trip isn’t in the cards at the moment, you can experience a flavorful taste of island life at this Hilltop food truck

G.A. Benton
Pepper steak bowl at Ava's Taste of the Caribbean.

Flying to Jamaica would be one way to escape another frigid, sun-challenged winter day in Columbus. The idea of this getaway occurred to me recently, but then I thought about the potential costs — both in cash and stress — of a long trip made during an ongoing pandemic that entails hanging out with strangers on planes and in hotels while dealing with the COVID protocols of another country. So, I did one of the next best things: I drove to the Hilltop.

About 30 minutes after leaving Clintonville that evening, I was eating delicious jerk chicken with a boatload of Jamaican-style sides and fixings. My expeditious “dinnertime vacation of the mind” came courtesy of another huge and quickly served meal from Ava's Taste of the Caribbean.

The rare food truck to specialize in Jamaican cuisine on the West Side — a region that could lay claim to “the taco truck capital of central Ohio” — Ava's Taste of the Caribbean is stationed near the building (breaking news!) it will apparently occupy as a brick-and-mortar restaurant come springtime: the old Westgate Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace (a new West Side Dirty Frank’s appears imminent in the Hollywood Casino Columbus). 

Until the changeover (and fresh signage), look for Ava’s food truck just west of Hague Avenue in a spot marked by Castro Body Shop, whose sign is missing its “C.” 

If this sounds complicated, it’s really not. Just park behind what looks like “astro Paint & Body,” and you’ll locate a white food truck that’s often busy with customers, and whose appealing attributes include a nicely painted Jamaican map and Caribbean Sea-blue hubcaps.

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Another appealing attribute of Ava’s is Ava, aka Avril Gombedza. Recounting her venturesome past, she told me she’d emigrated from Jamaica 21 years ago, worked in hotels, studied Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management at Hocking College, and launched her first mobile kitchen (a food cart) in 2017. 

I can attest that her venturesome present includes consulting with restaurant renovators while busily serving homestyle Jamaican food to eager customers, many of whom she calls “sweetie.” 

Many of them request Ava’s irresistible barbecue jerk chicken: smoky, fall-off-the-bone dark-meat quarters with grill-seared skin slathered in a perky house barbecue sauce with an alluring little kick. 

That zesty chicken is available in several formats: plump burritos supplemented with Jamaican-style rice and beans ($10.99); the unlikely but inspired “rasta pasta” ($14.99) — bone-in meat atop penne in a well-made alfredo sauce; and, my preference, bowls heavily loaded with good sides of fried sweet plantains, hearty rice with beans, plus overachieving, naturally sweet sauteed cabbage (the recommended “large” bowl also came with two thighs and two legs for $13.99). 

Festival/fried dumplings at Ava's Taste of the Caribbean

Most of Ava’s proteins, though, are rustic stews with falling-off-the-bone meat. None were better than the curry goat ($15.99 for a large) — an enormous serving of tender, lamb-like goat and potatoes in a flavorful gravy whose mild heat can be increased with Ava’s flame-inducing hot sauce. Note: Ava’s stews are even better with a generous side of fried-crisp festival dumplings ($3.99) — think hefty, doughnut-esque hush puppies. 

Awash in rich dark gravy, the lovable brown stew chicken ($13.99 for large) shared flavor characteristics with much-fancier beef short ribs dishes, albeit with tiny bones. I loved the flavor of the similarly prepared oxtail even more, but its price ($19.99 for large) and meat-to-bone-and-cartilage ratio were less lovable.

In a provocative recent New York Times article about strong brain-stomach connections, Dr. Uma Naidoo — a prominent Harvard psychiatrist, nutritionist and trained chef — noted that the “gut” and brain originate from the same embryonic cells. So, while a Hilltop parking lot is hardly Jamaica, don’t be shocked if eating Ava’s food will prompt your stomach to communicate with your brain that you’ve momentarily been transported to the Caribbean — at a relatively insignificant cost, too.    

The oxtails bowl at Ava's Taste of the Caribbean

Ava's Taste of the Caribbean

2836 W. Broad St., Hilltop

614-266-9308 (Calling ahead is highly recommended, especially on cold and inclement weather days.)