After watching your group Happy Hour plans fall through for the 13th time, you’ve decided to organize a night out that people will actually show up for. You want something exciting enough to get your friends off their couches, but not so high-maintenance that they bring out excuses like “I need to stay home and keep an eye on my sister’s fish.” Kaya, in the Civic Center, is a good middle ground, with well-made drinks and Jamaican food in an atmosphere that feels relaxed.
The first thing you can tell your friends to lure them to Kaya is that it’s a fairly hidden spot (people like hidden things). There’s only a logo on the door and a small sign to signify you’re in the right place. Inside, though, it feels spacious and laid-back, with a big U-shaped bar and tables of various sizes scattered around. Reggae music plays over the speakers, and there’s a huge shelving unit at the back filled with a collection of alcohol bottles more extensive than your nephew’s Hot Wheels fleet.
Those bottles aren’t just decorative. Alcohol is a big part of Kaya’s appeal. Specifically rum, which you can drink in flights or cocktails. The most expensive cocktails on the list are $13, and that $13 goes a long way - especially if you get the one that’s lit on fire while you watch. Just be aware that whatever you’re drinking is likely stronger than it tastes (a good or bad thing, depending on how much you like suddenly realizing you’re drunk).
There are plenty of restaurants with nice spaces and strong cocktails in SF, but the Jamaican menu here sets Kaya apart. Portion sizes for both the “small” and “big” dishes are on the larger side, so everything is easy to split with a group. Our favorites of the small plates are the sweet caramelized carrots (which basically taste like candy), the tamarind shrimp, and the salad with pickled papaya. Of the larger plates, we like the rich, well-seasoned oxtail stew and the curried vegetables, which will make even non-vegetarians happy. Some things are inconsistent - we’ve had salt fish fritters that were bland and jerk chicken that lacked spice - but otherwise, the food is very good.
Overall, Kaya is a great place to go out with friends when you want something slightly upscale that isn’t intimidatingly formal. You won’t feel uncomfortable ordering that third drink and doing a dramatic retelling of the time you had a whole text conversation with your boss while thinking it was your sister, but you also won’t be sacrificing food quality in the name of a good time.
Salt Fish Fritters
These are usually well-seasoned, although on one visit they were too bland. If you want fried things, order them, and don’t skimp on the chimichurri they come with.
Grilled Wild Gulf Shrimp
Covered in a tamarind glaze and really delicious. Our favorite seafood dish on the menu.
These go well with the black bean sauce and sour cream. They pop up as sides with some other dishes (like the jerk chicken), so you may not need a separate order, unless you really love plantains.
Papaya and Greens
Know that this is more “greens with some pickled papaya” than the other way around (still, we wish more salads had pickled papaya on them). If you’re a salad-for-dinner kind of person, this could be a main, but if not, get it to share.
Caramelized Carrots and Squash
You could hand these pomegranate-molasses-glazed vegetables out at Halloween, because they’re so sweet they’re essentially candy. And not candy like Smarties - candy you actually want to eat a lot of.
Mary’s Organic Jerk Chicken
This is always tasty, but can be a little inconsistent in terms of spice - on one visit, it was well-cooked but on the milder side. Worst comes to worst, if it’s not that spicy you can apply some of the extremely hot pepper sauce you’ll find on your table.
Black Pepper Crab
A tasty whole crab that you need to crack yourself. While it’s a pretty manageable size, you’ll still be dragging behind people who have less labor-intensive entrees, so keep that in mind when you order.
This is a well-seasoned dish that’s deeply satisfying. If you’re a vegetarian, rejoice - but you’ll like it even if you’re not.
Piri Piri Chicken
Half of a chicken, perfectly cooked and covered in a sweet and spicy glaze. The jerk chicken is better, but this is not bad - it comes down to what you’re in the mood for.
One of the best things on the menu. Slow cooked oxtail in a rich sauce served over rice with fried plantains. This is pretty much the definition of great comfort food.
Swirl Soft Serve
A combination of the spiced vanilla soft serve and the chocolate habanero soft serve, topped with mint and mango sauce. Spicy desserts can be hit or miss, but in this case we’re hoping Kaya will announce they’re opening an ice cream window so we can come by and get this anytime.
All the cocktails we’ve had here have been tasty and loaded with rum (or other spirits, but mostly rum). We’ll be over here with a Montego Slang.