[Al's has sadly closed. I don't know why].
There is a group called Peckham Vision which is dedicated to improving Peckham town centre. One of the ways they propose to do this is by advising local shops on appearance – product arrangement, signs, layout etc. Walking into Peckham is like walking into a giant jumble sale; stock is stacked in precarious towers – yams on popcorn machines on washing baskets on yams on bags of rice on yams on yams, with a phone unlocking shop wedged in at the side. While I agree there is a lot traders could do to smarten up and make themselves more appealing to the masses, I want to plead that we keep the higgledy piggledy arrangement and delegation of space. You can find brilliant things in unlikely places and personally, I relish the adventure; the lady I buy most of my decorated plates from, for example, trades from an old garage; bars, artists’ studios and restaurants squeeze under railway arches and now there’s Al, selling his Caribbean food from a tiny cramped passageway.
Alvin and his partner Zeena opened their business just a couple of weeks ago and they could be easily missed amongst the bustle of Rye Lane but my jerk-dar is highly sensitive, and I was in there faster than you can say ‘curry goat with rice and peas, plantain and a side of ackee, please’.
It’s amazing what people can do with a little fire in their belly – into that space Al has arranged a gas ring, a grill, a prep table, a fridge and by the time he and Zeena are in there too, there’s room for a person to stand and place and order, or you can call ahead and he’ll have it ready. Signs are strung up over the front, because there’s no door or window to speak of.
At the moment you can buy jerk lamb, chicken, rice and peas and salad but soon Al will start making curry goat and other traditional dishes. Zeena makes gorgeous fresh fruit juices at the ‘juice station’ (a shelf in the corner) and soon she’ll be selling her cakes, too. They tell me they’ve decided to start small and build up slowly, but twice I went down there and they’d sold out of everything. A good sign.
Jerk chicken was moist and coated with a thick, well-spiced marinade rather than wet-glazed like that of nearby competitor Caribbean Spice Jerk Centre. My favourite thing about Al’s though, is the gravy. A rich, brown stewed onion mixture which he ladles over your rice and peas before topping it with the meat. It’s sweet and addictive, tasting of the bottom of roasting pans and caramelised things. My only criticism is that the jerk isn’t very spicy, but then not everyone wants it so; variety is good and there’s always hot sauce.
Al and Zeena are so welcoming, that you’ll go away feeling like you’ve made new friends. He greeted me with outstretched arms and a beaming smile last time I was there, asking after my boyfriend too, who wasn’t. Al’s sums up everything I love about Peckham: the randomness, the sense of fun, the food and more often than not, the people. There’s a raw energy in the air here, which comes from characters like Al and Zeena, who believe in the value of the area and work with its idiosyncrasies, not against them. Let’s keep the heart of Peckham pumping.
[Edit: Al's has now closed, I do not know why. I hope he has moved premises as he was doing so well and selling out daily].
Al’s Caribbean Food
Umm, well it’s about two doors down from Khan’s Bargain Ltd. on Rye Lane, near the station. If you come out of the station, turn right and cross over the road, you will find it.
I’ll update this with a phone number when I next see Al.