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At Instagram sensation Kingston 11 in Southwest Philly, Jamaican flavors exceed the hype | Craig LaBan

The Jamaican spot with jerk lamb and great mac and cheese has proven to be far more than just an Instagram phenom.

Abbygale Bloomfield (right) with her mother, Sandra Brown, and their jerk fried chicken at Kingston 11.
Abbygale Bloomfield (right) with her mother, Sandra Brown, and their jerk fried chicken at Kingston 11.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

I didn’t expect these takeout boxes to move me like they did. Yes, I’ve eaten my fair share of great meals from Styrofoam clamshells the past couple years. But all that Instagram hype...? It’s too often just that.

Then Kaylah Taylor sidled up to the counter at ‘Gram famous Kingston 11 with my order and lifted the lids for a dramatic reveal. All my senses suddenly snapped to attention as the savory steam of oxtails glossed in mahogany gravy billowed up to greet me from atop their perch of rice and peas. The gingery flex of earthy curried goat tickled my nose. She leaned over to stripe the jerk chicken with a squirt of Kingston 11’s Main Squeeze, a splash of tangy sauce that triggered the aroma of that bird’s deep grill smoke and spice — and made me catch my breath.

And reach for my phone camera, too. With 164,000 Instagram followers and counting, co-owner Abbygale Bloomfield never wastes an opportunity to give her fans a chance to interact and spread the gospel on social media. Her tidy takeout spot in Southwest Philly got an extraordinary early boost when it opened in 2018 and a family friend touted her cooking on the Shade Room, the celeb gossip site with nearly 25 million followers. Kingston 11 has been booming ever since, serving up to 700 people a day from the tight quarters and 10-burner stove of this Woodland Avenue storefront.

At a moment when Facebook and Instagram are rightfully being thrashed for the toxic effects they’ve had on other aspects of society, Kingston 11 is a reminder that social media has also been a powerful and positive tool for many small businesses to make essential connections. This is especially true for people of color who’ve historically lacked equal access to capital and mainstream media. Bloomfield can reach enthusiastic audiences and control her own narrative instantly.

“I absolutely love that I can post a dish and within an hour I’ll be sold out,” says Bloomfield, 35, who is staunchly opposed to padding her social media reach by purchasing extra followers. “I want to be able to feel my customers and my community and have a relationship with them.”

Some ‘serious’ cooking

Several dozen people were hungrily waiting their turn on the sidewalk one recent Saturday night when I emerged triumphant — on my third visit — with yet more treasure, this time Bloomfield’s jerk fried chicken, a specialty so good it deserves the devoted following it’s cultivated through our voyeuristic phones. Of course, there’s a downside to this popularity: incredibly long waits for cooked-to-order meals, even if you call ahead as recommended. I waited an extra 45 minutes past my meal’s ETA because this restaurant is particularly short-staffed.

We opened those takeout boxes in the car and the ensuing flurry of plastic forks, mmms!, aaahs! and whoas! made it clear: Bloomfield’s food is special. (Call ahead!)

“That’s some serious cooking there,” said my companion, a pro chef who at that moment was raving just about the collards, which are sautéed, not boiled, and hit a perfect balance of freshness and snap and resonate with a vinegary glow of heat.

The compliments kept rolling when we got to the goat (“best I’ve had,” he said), whose well-trimmed chunks were impressively tender and whose natural gaminess danced into the fruity habanero spice, earthy turmeric, and gingery spark of the curry gravy. (This goat, apparently, is a favorite of former Eagle Freddie Mitchell).

And then came those epic oxtails, braised until the grass-fed beef was soft but not mushy and clung to their star-shaped bones just enough for us to pick them clean with our teeth. We’d eaten oxtails at another Jamaican place in West Philly that were also tender ― but one-dimensional compared to the multilayered depth of Kingston 11′s, which get marinated for days before they’re braised. One bite and those darkly sauced morsels radiate waves of sweetness and swagger from tamarind, the herbal echo of thyme sticks and pimento berries (allspice), and a “fresh-fresh” ginger zap that segues into a lingering chile hum on the tongue.

Those oxtails are a birthright and inspiration for Bloomfield, a Jamaican native who immigrated to Southwest Philly when she was 5 and eschews the title “chef.”

“I just grew up in the kitchen with my momma who taught me how to cook.”

Her mother, Sandra Brown, 60, also taught her daughter the value of food as a means to self-reliance when Brown lost her job as a health-care aide and began selling oxtail platters out of their Yeadon home to support her six children.

“The entrepreneur was birthed in me when I watched how my mom did that,” said Bloomfield, who was in high school at the time. “I’ve always wanted a restaurant since and now it’s happened.”

Even better, Bloomfield, who co-owns Kingston 11 with her husband, Maxwell Otu, gets to cook with her mom every day. And they produce an expansive repertoire of menu standards and daily specials, from the regular stewpots of goat head soup (”yes, with an actual goat head — and lots of minerals!”) to the applewood-smoked jerk chicken, and a “Philly Mac & Cheese” that is sneakily one of the best in town. Six mystery cheeses play distinct roles in the blend to amplify its molten comfort, stretchy anticipation, creamy sweetness, and a sharp ping to punctuate the finish. Of course, I couldn’t help wonder out loud...

“I can’t tell you because it’s a secret!” says Taylor, cheerfully deflecting my not-so-innocent query at the counter for details. “That way you keep coming back.”

Return trips

And I did, of course, for two more visits to verify my first impressions and explore the other specialties, which meld both Bloomfield’s Kingston roots and her subsequent life in Philly and nearby Delaware County. I still want to return for her Thursday tributes to the city’s Chinese takeout kitchens, a jerk chicken twist on lo mein and Singapore noodles.

But I was sure to stop by for weekend specials like the jerk chicken lasagna, which is similar to the traditional Italian American rendition with all its noodle layers of creamy ricotta, but Bloomfield’s red sauce takes a spicy island jaunt with the habanero peppers in the marinara, then the smoky shreds of jerk chicken breast and peppers. The jerk salmon was also a winner beneath the gingery, garlicky shine of Kingston 11’s Caribbean simmer sauce.

I’m still haunted by the deep smokehouse savor of jerk lamb chops that take their turn on the oil drum grill on weekends only. The hefty pile of thin-cut, bony rounds gets dry-rubbed and marinated like the oxtails, but instead of a softening simmer, they roast over applewood that imprints smoke into their crusty edges and concentrates the pimento and thyme spice.

A squirt of the Main Squeeze when Taylor does her counter reveal takes them to yet another place. That sauce’s unique brew of sweetness, tang, and heat, built around tamarind and raspberry purees (“my two favorite fruits!”) along with a secret pepper (a Scotch bonnet cousin Bloomfield won’t disclose) lend this sauce a magnetic power as it coats your fingertips, lips, and imagination as it refocuses all the other flavors it comes in contact with and persuades you back for another bite.

The ole secret recipe-act is no put-on in this case. That’s because Bloomfield is on the precipice of some major next steps. A second location with more in-house seating on South Street East is on track for next spring, she said, bringing Kingston 11′s flavors into the Center City bubble. But perhaps even more exciting: Bloomfield is launching a product line of her sauces and jerk fried chicken mix under a new company called Worthwhile Foods, to debut online in late November.

Is it even possible for a home cook to reproduce the crusty magic of Kingston 11′s jerk fried chicken? It’s brined overnight with pimento berries and habaneros before it’s deep-fried to a greaseless crust that blushes orange with imported Jamaican spices that sparkled on my lips. Top 5 in Philly? Yeah, mon.

Of course, there’s skill involved, too. But I still can’t wait to give this mix a try because it’s exactly what Kingston 11 uses. And Bloomfield has proven to be far more than just an Instagram phenom: “It took me a while to build up my confidence, but that’s why I named my company Worthwhile Foods. Because I’m worth knowing. Because — hell yeah! — I’m worthwhile.”

So is a trip to Woodland Avenue.

Kingston 11

The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.

6405 Woodland Ave., 215-596-0216; on Instagram and

Takeout only Tuesday through Thursday, 1-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Call ahead!

Credit cards accepted.

Street parking only.

Masks required for entrance.