Isaiah Martinez walks through the Lane County farmers market with the innate confidence of a New Yorker, dodging tourists in Eugene for the World Athletics Championships, nodding to other chefs, handing checks to vendors and pausing to admire a box of sweet peppers, some purple and squat, others pale green and tapered like wicked witch fingers.
“I got the seeds you dropped off,” a farmer calls out from across the crowd.
Though he only moved here in 2018, and didn’t open his Caribbean food cart Yardy until 2021, Martinez has already made an impact in Eugene. After an early pop-up when he was still working at local farm-to-table landmark Marché, The Eugene Register-Guard described Martinez as a “revolutionary chef.” Four months after his canary yellow cart opened last year, Eugene Weekly readers named it the city’s best new restaurant. And at the start of July, The Oregonian/OregonLive called Yardy — with its excellent skillet-fried chicken and traditional Trinidadian doubles — one of Eugene’s best restaurants, period.
Those doubles — a traditional West Indian dish of puffy turmeric fry bread and curry-spiced chickpeas — that led to the seeds. In the United States, where Scotch Bonnet peppers are rare, restaurants — sometimes unwittingly — substitute habaneros, a similar pepper with a near-identical appearance and a slightly different flavor. But Caribbean chefs in the know prefer the Scotch Bonnet, not just for its authenticity, but for its added heat and fruit-forward aroma.
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So, after a recent trip to Jamaica with fiancé Patrianna Douglas, Martinez returned to Eugene with real-deal Scotch Bonnets in his suitcase. Back home, he removed the chile’s seeds, dried them in foil, and dropped them off with Debbie and Ben Tilley, owners of Crossroads Farm, a popular hot sauce stand at the market. Eventually, Martinez hopes to buy peppers grown by the Tilleys from the seeds so he can “say for sure we have authentic Jamaican Scotch Bonnets.”
Despite Yardy’s small footprint, Martinez, 30, has earned a mention among the new generation of talented chefs exploring the food of the Black diaspora — the ingredients and dishes that traveled with slaves from Africa to the Caribbean to the American South and beyond. And he’s doing it in a region with little in the way of Caribbean food. Even in Portland, doubles are almost impossible to find (though celebrity chef Gregory Gourdet plans to serve them at Sousòl, the pan-Caribbean cocktail bar beneath his upcoming Haitian restaurant Kann). In 2021, Martinez’ recipe for doubles was included in historian and cookbook author Bryant Terry’s “Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes From Across the African Diaspora.”
“I’m inspired by Black culture and Northwest ingredients,” says Martinez, whose family traces its roots to Puerto Rico and Grenada. “Our focus is trying to figure out ways to celebrate Black food. And that’s not common. I spent a lot of my career cooking French, Italian, Californian food. We would make dinners with winemakers, celebrity chefs, cookbooks, always celebrating everything but Black food.”
Martinez was born in the Bronx, lived in Brooklyn and in upstate New York and, after his dad kicked him out of the house for skipping a July 4 barbecue, moved out west to join his mom in San Francisco. He enrolled in culinary school and started working at top local restaurants, eventually landing at the Oakland location of A16, an Italian restaurant where he met former Marché chef and now Pizzeria DOP owner Rocky Maselli. When Maselli left to retake the reins at Marché, he invited Martinez to follow him to Eugene as his sous chef.
In Eugene, Martinez found himself impressed by the produce, but disappointed with the level of cooking in local kitchens. He left Marché to open Provisions South, a second location of the restaurant’s food hall. But all the while he was fundraising, mounting pop-ups at local wineries and plotting the future of Yardy.
“When I interviewed (Martinez) initially for A16, I asked him what his goals were, and he said he wanted to open a casual Caribbean restaurant,” Maselli says. “That was 2013, so he already had the idea then.”
Maselli, who considers himself a friend, attributes Martinez’ success to his energy, focus, drive and natural ability to keep a busy kitchen humming.
“He’s probably one of the better young chefs on the West Coast right now,” Maselli says. ”I’ve worked with so many people over the years, good and bad, and occasionally you get to work with someone where you ask yourself, ‘Where is this person going to be in 5 or 10 years?’ You know it’s going to be somewhere awesome.”
Maselli recalls Martinez saving tips during the first few months at Maselli’s Pizzeria DOP truck to buy ingredients to make hot sauce, his first Yardy product available in Eugene.
“We nerd out together about traditional cuisine,” Maselli says. “He’s cooked a lot of southern Italian specifically with me, and has a lot of understanding about that. My father’s side of the family is from southern Italy, so I have a passion for learning more about that cuisine. Isaiah does the same thing. He wants to bring the food of his people to the masses.”
Besides dousing the doubles in fiery heat, Martinez’ hot sauce also appears next to the dish Yardy is best known for: fried chicken.
“I picked fried chicken because our town has no good fried chicken,” Martinez said. “No disrespect, I’m just more neurotic about the process.”
That process, inspired in part by a stint working at the celebrated Oakland Caribbean restaurant Miss Ollie’s, includes salting Mary’s air-chilled chickens to dry; rubbing them with a house roasted blend of 14 spices including cardamom, allspice and mace; bathing them in buttermilk; dredging them in a mix of gluten-free flours; and frying them in rice bran oil in a cauldron just crowded enough to lend a braising effect. It’s the best skillet-fried chicken I’ve tried in Oregon, with a crunch of gluten-free crust giving way to a rush of juicy meat.
Instead of the usual mac and cheese or mashed potatoes and gravy, Yardy’s fried chicken is served with a market fresh salad and a chunk of cornbread made from heirloom corn, healthful sides each highlighting Northwest ingredients. Yardy’s “market plate” is inspired by the seasons, and could include anything from a fennel-plum slaw to pork ribs tossed in sesame seeds. The cart’s skillets do extra work frying smashed plantains and Carib doughnuts.
“I picked fried chicken because I knew it would thrive in the thick of COVID, and it tastes good cold,” Martinez says. “But I don’t want to serve it as an antidepressant. The thought process is to give people fried chicken, and force them to eat vegetables too. I’m never going to serve it with French fries. I want to serve people food that they feel comfortable feeding their families, not just people who had a rough day at work.
Martinez has his eye opening moment with Caribbean food while attending his great grandmother’s funeral in Grenada, a small island nation north of Trinidad and Tobago, just before starting at A16.
“We were super close,” Martinez says. “She cared for my mother and me when my mom was a single mom and wanted to party. My great grandma would always feed us curries and roti, and they wouldn’t change the spice level just because we were kids. We grew up eating hot, tasty curry, and not complaining about it.”
Martinez broke down at the sight of his great grandmother in her casket, and was eventually led upstairs to the bar, where he was comforted with some roti and curry goat with sweet potato, the same things he ate as a kid.
“I went from crying to being so happy,” he said.
Curry goat and jerk chicken made appearances at some of Yardy’s first pop-ups, though Martinez notes fried chicken is also a staple in Grenada, though there the process is “even crazier.”
“They fry it in a skillet over wood fire,” Martinez says. “It gets really smoky. I don’t know how to do that.”
After an early pop-up featuring giant platters of buttermilk biscuits with jerk-spiced butter and stone fruit preserves and fresh crab soup with potatoes and greens in a warm coconut milk broth, local chef and freelance writer Gracie Schatz declared Martinez a “truly revolutionary chef” that Eugene was “fortunate enough to have in our town.”
For Schatz, who runs the nonprofit cooking school Marigold Cooking Collective (formerly Heart of Willamette), befriending and working with Martinez has been one of the best parts about living in Eugene.
“During that first Black History Month dinner, he was making fried chicken for 50 people and this coconut milk curry with crab that’s still one of the most delicious thing I’ve ever had,” Schatz says. “Everyone was given pitchers of rum punch to drink at the table, and then between every course he would come out and explain to us how jerk spice originated, the story of why fried chicken is a Black food, educating us while we were seated, demanding out attention by the excellence of the food he was making. He wasn’t a stress case afterwards. He was wholly invested and it just blew my mind.”
During the World Athletics Championships last week, Asics tapped Martinez for back-to-back-to-back-to-back events at their Uplift festival, all while Yardy continued to operate as usual behind Coldfire Brewing.
Once summer events start to slow, Martinez has a vision for Yardy’s future: a brick-and-mortar restaurant with colorful picnic tables, quality rums mixed with fruit juice, movies starring Black actors projected on a screen and an expanded menu of Caribbean dishes. Before that happens, a second cart could hit the streets of Eugene, or perhaps Portland, where he longs to test himself against bigger-city chefs.
But at least for now, like the Scotch Bonnets growing at Crossroads Farm, Martinez is putting down roots in Eugene.
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