The BackYard hosts diverse cuisines, audiences
There are food truck pods in Medford, and then there’s The BackYard Community Food Court.
Cuisine from the Caribbean and Turkey intersects with Latin American and soul food specialties in the lot behind Ride’em Wear. The South Riverside Avenue hub for Black culture in Southern Oregon also is a venue for live music, stand-up comedy and, coming next week, a drag show.
Architect of The BackYard, Terry Wells expanded his family business from Southern California. Moving north, his cowboy-themed clothing morphed into a boutique for sportswear, streetwear and hip-hop-inspired gear. Simultaneously, his expansive parking lot next to Miller Paint was transformed in spring 2021 with porches, decks and awnings to host guests for lunch, dinner, drinks or a show.
Among The BackYard’s regular mobile units is Siano’s Karibbean CookHouse. Proprietor Rafijah Siano is an artist, singer and songwriter who bested the field of fellow Black culinary entrepreneurs at the “Cookout,” a July 2021 competition at The BackYard. Other competitors were A & R BBQ, Fatso’s Cheketos, Freddie Lee’s Seafood Smorgasbord, Sid’s Gourmet Smoke & Grill and Stone’s Jamaican Roots & Juice, most of which have been reviewed in this column.
But not Siano’s — and not for lack of trying. I’d been tracking the mobile eatery across Instagram for the better part of a year because Siano really gets around. He’s a regular at Wednesday’s Applegate Evening Market, community celebrations and any number of music festivals, namely reggae. Sporadically serving lunch at The BackYard, Siano’s offers private delivery, as well as through DoorDash and Grubhub.
Indicative of Siano’s Virgin Islands upbringing, the menu is a diverse array of vegetarian and vegan dishes, fish and other seafood, locally raised beef, chicken, even oxtail and goat. Such Caribbean specialties as jerk, plantains, salt fish, festival dumplings and pigeon peas and rice have their counterparts in tofu, veggie lasagna and several main dish salads.
Customers craving a particular dish (curry goat!) should keep Siano’s menu handy. Both mains and sides change with the day of the week and the week of the month. Follow Siano’s on social media to catch one-off guava-coconut tart, conch in butter sauce or jet-fresh Virgin Islands avocados.
The menu wasn’t quite as exotic as I had hoped when I finally caught Siano’s at The BackYard for Friday stand-up comedy. I couldn’t fault him, though, for sticking to what sells when rubbing elbows with three other food trucks: Medicine Queen, Pour Favor and Al’s Mediterranean.
Fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and banana pudding at Medicine Queen gave me a moment’s pause, but I couldn’t pass up Siano’s after so much anticipation. My partner and I selected a small jerk chicken plate ($16) and Creole shrimp, which comes in a single size for $20. Other entrees were pepper steak and vegan delight, also $16 each for small or $20 for large. Every plate came with three sides: rice and pigeon peas, collard greens and steamed veggies.
Siano’s partner confirmed our willingness to wait about 20 minutes for the shrimp, which required a longer heating time than the other items. Audience sign-ups were still underway for the 8:30 p.m. comedy open mike. Our food arrived just as host Nick Meier was taking the stage.
My takeout container revealed a generous mound of rice and pigeon peas, soaking up the sauce from my shrimp, with smaller scoops of collards and a melange of carrots, peas, corn, lima beans and green beans — a dead ringer for bagged, frozen mixed veggies. My partner’s jerk chicken plate contained a smaller quantity of rice, as we expected, all but obscured by a hearty bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh.
As with the better prepared Caribbean food I’ve tried, the spice didn’t assert itself on the first bite but built slowly and sensuously mouthful by mouthful. My partner’s chicken was impeccably juicy under deeply caramelized skin that stopped short of charred. The jerk spices intensified with a dip in Siano’s special spicy jerk sauce, also intensely savory with a bright, acidic note.
The shrimp forever shifted my paradigm of this shellfish, which I’ve always decried when overcooked until rubbery and/or stringy. I never expected Siano would not only overcook shrimp but cook them for so long that their texture would transcend just-done succulence to fall-apart lusciousness. A generous portion of at least eight crustaceans, these also were the best-tasting specimens I’ve eaten outside high-end dinnerhouses in years, their flavor closer to lobster.
Even the collards, which Siano prepared to highlight their innate bitterness, instead of disguising it, were a revelation. I couldn’t even begin to guess at their seasoning. The vegetable melange, whatever its provenance, supplied an essentially bland counterpoint on which to rest the palate.
We’d already nearly drained our cups of Siano’s hibiscus punch ($5). So we sought out Pour Favor, the region’s only liquor-licensed mobile unit, for a couple of cocktails. The red truck parks at The BackYard for most evening events and, on this occasion, offered three mixed drinks for $9 apiece, a Chamoy-spiked White Claw for $6 and $5 shots.
See The BackYard’s updates about events and food vendors on Instagram, @thebackyard_medford, and Facebook, facebook.com/MedfordRideemwear. Find Siano’s Karibbean CookHouse and see specials on Instagram, @sianos_karibbean_cookhouse, and on Facebook. Call 813-447-7388 to place an order.
Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org