Coco Bread Brings Jamaica to the North Bronx

The Kingston Tropical Bakery lives up to its name.

The Kingston Tropical Bakery lives up to its name.

BY BAYAN RAJI

Just as Manhattan is notorious for skyscrapers and apartment buildings that consume the city horizon, the Kingston Tropical Bakery makes the block at 226th and White Plains Road famous for the rich, buttery smell of oven-baked goods.

Jamaican-born John and Jessie Levi opened the Kingston Tropical Bakery about 30 years ago. The family-owned business prides itself in the exclusiveness of the baked goods — it has only two branches — and the fresh, home made flavor.

As Jamaican immigrants, the Levis noticed the growing Jamaican population had few — if any — places to go when they wanted a taste of home. They opened Kingston Tropical to cater to the growing Jamaican population. The Levis had impeccable timing because today Wakefield in the North Bronx is home to one of the largest Jamaican populations in New York City, according to the New York City Department of City Planning. From 1990-1999 alone, about 15,000 Jamaican immigrants settled in the Wakefield neighborhood. Today, White Plains Road is a hub of Jamaican restaurants, record stores and supermarkets.

In an area that now offers a plethora of options, business is good at the Kingston Bakery. A near-constant flow of customers keeps the workers busy and the ovens hot.

Step inside and the roar of the subway overhead disappears nearly as easily as butter melts on the hot, sticky cinnamon buns. But it’s not the cinnamon rolls the bakery prides itself on.

“Our focus is really on the beef patties and coco breads because nobody makes it like us,” says John Levi’s sister, Caroline Sinclair, who has been working at the bakery for 29 years.

The Jamaican beef patty — resembling a turnover — is a pastry with beef filling and spices like curry and cumin inside a flaky crust. Coco bread is almost sinfully lighter and flakier than other types of bread.

Customer Nathan Lovemore hasn’t been back to Jamaica since 1974, but he can still remember what the food tastes like — and he enjoys the reminder he gets at Kingston Bakery.

“I’m making a correlation between then and now,” he says. His favorites are corn bread and beef patties.

For Keith Williams, the bakery’s coco bread is the draw. Williams used to visit Kingston to fix his cravings for Jamaican food. He recently moved back to the North Bronx after living in the south for about 10 years. Upon his return, a friend told him about a bakery with fresh, warm coco bread. Sure enough, it was the same place Williams used to frequent 10 years before.

Sinclair’s teenage grandson, Kevin Mendez, has been working at the bakery for about six months, shortly after he moved to the U.S. from Jamaica, and while he likes the work and the paycheck, the job has other perks as well.

“The cinnamon buns, actually that’s good,” Mendez says, rattling off some other favorites too. “Basically it reminds me of home.”

Sinclair says the weekends are the busiest because old customers who moved out of the area come back for a little taste of home. They are the ones who keep Kingston in business, she says.

But school days are busy too. After school ends, young kids in pleated uniforms rush in and out. Some come with their parents and order whatever they desire from the menu.

Eleven-year-old Shade White often comes to Kingston with her mom as an after-school treat. White left Jamaica when she was a toddler, but the visits home have left strong imprints. That’s where the coco bread comes in.

“It’s nice and buttery and it’s like real Jamaican food,” she says.

Photo – Bayan Raji

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