By Eric Fritzius
On Main Street in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., at right about the point where West Main Street becomes East Main Street, there sits a historic Valentine-style diner. It’s the very sort of boxy, eight-stool, checkered-floor, gleaming stainless steel grill area, art deco lunch-counter that is the embodiment of a classic diner. This particular diner building has been a White Sulphur landmark since 1952, when it was brought in by train and first opened as Bone’s Diner.
It’s had many names over the decades since—such as Bev’s Diner, the Diner, Vicky’s Diner, Mel’s Diner, and, more recently, Mom & Dad’s Place. If you drive by it today, though, you’ll notice that the classic green trim of its Mel’s Diner days has been given a fresh coat of bright emerald green, a shade that exactly matches the flag mounted in a bracket beside the walk-up serving window out front. An identical flag, featuring green and black triangles surrounding a gold X, is painted on the sign above the front door. And above that flag is the new name of this historic establishment: Wah Gwaan Diner. If these visual clues weren’t enough to let you know that this is not your average greasy spoon, perhaps the mention of curry goat on the specials board outside would better indicate that the Wah Gwaan Diner is Greenbrier County’s premiere Jamaican fusion restaurant.
The idea of owning a Jamaican restaurant itself was a dream long shared by Wah Gwaan’s co-owners, Patrick Simpson and his son and restaurant manager Adrian Simpson. Patrick hales from Kingston, Jamaica, but has been in the U.S. for 20 years, the last ten of which have been spent working at The Greenbrier. Adrian, who grew up in Oracabessa, Jamaica, joined him there in 2013 at the age of 20. And it was during this time that the two of them began to discuss the prospect of opening their own Jamaican restaurant. Neither had owned a restaurant of any kind before. Adrian had not even worked on the line as a cook in a restaurant kitchen before. However, they knew the cuisine and had spent years perfecting its preparation.
“I learned to cook from my mom,” Simpson says. “I’ve been cooking since I was 12-years-old. The first meal that I made was curry chicken and rice with peas—” which, he explains, is what we call “rice and beans” in the U.S. “That was the first dish that I cooked. And then, subsequently, we moved onto the things that take a lot more time, like the oxtail, the goat—because those are really a lengthy process.” While Simpson’s mother taught him to cook, he says her teaching style was a bit unorthodox. “My mom had a different way of teaching you how to cook. She wouldn’t be in the kitchen showing you what to do—she would more sit in the living room and tell you what to do. And then she would see the finished product and then she’d critique it.”
Simpson knew he had the skill and the recipes for such a restaurant. The big question was whether or not Jamaican food could find an audience in small town West Virginia?
“We went back and forth with the idea,” Simpson says. “Should we open up a restaurant like this in West Virginia or should we just take it to a larger city where there’s a lot more diversity? But we were here for a while and planned to be here for a little bit, so we decided ‘let’s try it and see if it works.’”
The Simpsons already had a dream location for their proposed restaurant. “My dad always had an eye on this building specifically,” Simpson says of the historic diner location, which had been sitting empty since its former identity of Mom & Dad’s Place had closed. They even tried to inquire about renting the space, but had little luck in locating the current owners of the building. Some months later, though, Adrian fortuitously spied a For Rent sign on the place. Calls were made, and the wheels were rapidly set in motion—a lot more rapidly than most new restaurateurs might care for. The major caveat to renting the building was that they would have to open their new restaurant within 30 days of signing the lease. The Simpsons instantly went from not owning a restaurant to having a deadline to open one. It’s the kind of detail-filled process that usually takes several months, with hundreds of decisions to be made, all condensed into 30 days.
“I had to go in and do some renovations and kind of get everything set up,” Simpson says. “Pretty much that was done in about two weeks, but then we were waiting on the license and other stuff. It ended up being about a month.”
Beyond the renovations, the ordering of plates and cutlery, and other logistical requirements, the Simpsons had the pressing matter of deciding upon the food they would soon serve.
“Ever since I came to the states, I have played around with different menu items and kind of made my own menus,” Simpson says. “But it came to a full circle when I actually opened up the restaurant. I came with all these ideas and sat down one day and put these all together and said `well, I think this would work.’”
Simpson knew from the start that Jamaican cuisine would be a reach for the palate of many of his potential customers. But he had a compromise in mind.
“Typically when you go to a Jamaican restaurant you’re going to see all the staples that are from Jamaica, like the rice and peas, the oxtail, the goat, white rice, sautéed cabbage,” Simpson says. “The fusion part came into play because we’re in the middle of West Virginia. This is something very new to them. So we actually wanted to put the flavors of Jamaica into things that are familiar to Americans.”
In other words, diner food with a Jamaican kick.
Wah Gwaan opened for business on July 24, 2017. Its name has a story as well.
“Wah Gwaan is an informal greeting, which means `what’s going on?’ or `what’s up?’” Simpson says in his musical accent. “My brother Andre actually came up with the name. It’s one of the most popular Jamaican slangs that go around. You see somebody and say `Wah gwaan?’ And they say, `Nothing much.’”
If you had asked either of the Simpsons “Wah gwaan?” after the opening of the diner, the answer would not have been “Nothing much.” They would have been too busy to respond, as the place was packed and stayed that way.
“The first two months of business was super, super busy. A lot of people wanted to try something new,” Simpson says. And in those early days it became a true family business, with his father Patrick, brother Andre, and sister Stacy-Ann all coming in to help out. Even Simpson’s mother, Kavel Bradley, flew in from Jamaica to lend a hand for a while. And while she is not physically present for most of the year, Simpson says his mother’s presence is still always felt. “Pretty much, all these recipes are mostly hers. I’ve learnt them from her. And I kind of keep them and I kind of change them up a little bit. But not too much,” he adds with a grin.
People can be hesitant to try Jamaican cuisine because of the assumption that it will be spicy. And the food is indeed spicy. However, as Simpson notes, there is a difference between spicy and hot. Spicy only means that spices have been used in the preparation of the food to lend it a great deal of flavor, but this does not necessarily mean heat.
“From the curry chicken to the oxtail to the goat, those items are very mild,” he says. “We use very limited heat in those items, but they also have a lot of flavor because we use a lot of dehydrated herbs and spices that are locally sourced from Jamaica. So it’s not your typical salt and pepper with a little bit of cayenne or Cajun or something like that.”
For those who like the heat, though, it can still be found. “Anything that’s jerk normally has the tendency to be spicy, because you have to use Scotch bonnet pepper.” The jerk process means grilled meat that has been marinated with a mix of seasonings, such as scallions, ginger, thyme, garlic, cinnamon, peppercorns, nutmeg, pimento, brown sugar, and the aforementioned Scotch bonnet peppers. Wah Gwaan’s jerk chicken has some heat from the pepper, but it is far from overpowering.
Jamaican spices are naturally present in the so-called fusion foods as well, such as Wah Gwaan’s selection of different burgers. Hamburgers as we know them already exist in Jamaica, of course, but Simpson says those are not like the ones he serves at Wah Gwaan. “These are hamburgers that I hand-craft and kind of put my own twist on,” he says. The Jamrock Burger, for instance, has a seasoned beef patty topped with jerk chicken, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a spicy mayonnaise. It’s astoundingly flavorful, and brings just enough heat to know there’s pepper in there. There are also chicken and fish sandwiches incorporating island spices as well. The crinkle-cut fries served with these burgers and sandwiches are a diner essential, but even they can be dialed up another few notches when topped with jerk chicken, jalapenos, cheese and sour cream.
“You’ll never go to another Jamaican restaurant or go to Jamaica and see anything like this. That’s why it’s called Jamaican Fusion,” he says. “You find all these classic American items that have a Jamaican flavor profile.”
How ever good the burgers may be, the traditional dishes are where the true Jamaican cuisine experience can be found. Coconut Curry Shrimp is a good entry-level dish. It features curry-spiced shrimp stewed together with peppers, onions, and garlic in a coconut cream sauce. Traditional dishes are served with rice and beans or plain rice, plus steamed vegetables, and fried plantains, giving customers even more of a sample of Jamaican cuisine.
From entry-level dishes, customers often move on to curry or stewed chicken, curry salmon, and then the poster-child for all Jamaican cuisine: jerk chicken.
“Everybody that knows of Jamaica or have ever heard of Jamaica, the first thing that comes to mind is jerk chicken. That is the most consistently popular menu item,” Simpson says. The jerk chicken is where his father Patrick gets to shine. While he is co-owner of Wah Gwaan, the senior Simpson leaves most of the day-to-day operations to his son. However, this self-proclaimed grill-master is always on hand when it is time to grill the jerk chicken—the final step in a lengthy preparation that takes at least a day.
Wah Gwaan’s jerk chicken begins with a marinade of Scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, thyme, scallions, and other natural herbs and spices—warm spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg. “And what makes our jerk chicken unique is that we don’t just use a marinade process, we also use what we call dry rub jerk, which we source straight from Jamaica. We put that on the chicken and let that sit for a couple of hours and then we actually put the marinade on it after. This sits at least overnight.” Finally, Patrick Simpson comes in to grill the chicken on an open flame charcoal grill, where it is put on direct heat to get the necessary char and smoke flavor before being moved to an indirect heat to finish. The cooking process takes around an hour and a half.
While jerk chicken is always on the Jamaican cuisine leaderboard, Simpson says that other dishes can be competitive from day to day depending on the customers’ individual tastes. “You have days when you sell a whole bunch of oxtail,” he says.
Which brings us such dishes as curry goat and oxtail and beans, which are the graduate level on the traditional dishes menu—at least as far as the average American palate is concerned. “A lot of people are still skeptical about goat and oxtail, which I feel are very normal types of protein. Cause oxtail is actually beef. It has a little bit more fat content than a chuck roast, or something like that.”
With the range of international employees and apprentices at The Greenbrier, the customer-base with experience with such dishes is wide. “When you get a lot of people from out of town, or a lot of people from other countries who have had this before, then that becomes the most popular menu item.” Regularly having a football team from a beef-producing state in town for training camp doesn’t hurt either. “When the Texans are here, we normally sell a lot of oxtail,” Simpson says with a laugh.
To make traditional oxtail, the beef tail is segmented, browned and moved to a pressure cooker. It is then simmered with fresh herbs and spices, stewed down until it is very tender, then served with beans. The curry goat, he says, is also very tender and is stewed down with potatoes. In many respects, Simpson says, a lot of Jamaican food is similar to standard American preparations of food, only with a lot more spices involved.
This writer can attest that it is delicious. This writer also recommends the beef patties.
“We do the Jamaican beef patties, which a lot of people reference them as meat pies or empanadas,” Simpson says, adding that beef patties are one of the most popular fast food items in Jamaica. Even in towns the size of White Sulphur Springs, there can be five different restaurants specializing in beef patties. They’re savory and satisfying.
Another favorite are the wings. “It’s one of the signature items that we have here.” The wings are coated in dry rub jerk seasoning, grilled, and then finished in the fryer. They are served with a choice of sauces, including jerk barbecue, regular barbecue, sweet chili, chili pineapple, or hot. “These wings are said to be the best wings in White Sulphur Springs and Greenbrier County, per the mayor of White Sulphur. They’ve become very popular.”
On Saturday evenings, Wah Gwaan serves a special of the day, normally rotating between either a stew dish or a seafood dish. “We always keep it interesting and we change it up on a Saturday.”
While his brother Andre comes in to help on occasion, on most days Wah Gwaan is run by Adrian Simpson himself. It’s a good fit, because the Valentine diner style, with its limited seating, was originally designed to be run by one or two people at most.
“I’m here all day. I start normally from about 8:30 in the morning, based on how busy it’s expected to be. So sometimes I could be here from like 7.” He is there until between 9:30 and 11 most evenings, depending on how busy the day has been and what he knows he’ll need to accomplish the following day.
With so few seats inside the diner during busy lunchtimes, customers often have to find a spare seat at the counter wherever they can fit. No one is a stranger for long. Food may also be ordered to go from the serving window.
After a year in business, Wah Gwaan has developed a regular customer base from Greenbrier County and beyond. There are regulars who come in between three and six times per week, who have tried everything on the menu. “We get a group from Beckley at least once a week,” Simpson says. “As it progresses you see a lot of people coming back, you have a lot of returning people.” He says he feels that the flavors are something people in the area are still getting accustomed to, but the audience for them is growing. “It’s a unique flavor profile for everything, but once you’ve tried it one time I feel like you’ll be back.”