AUBURN — When Patrice Henry came to Auburn in 1993, the only food options she saw around town were pizza and Chinese.
Ever since, the native Jamaican has wanted to give her new home a taste of her old one.
"You need something different at times," she said. "Who can beat a home-cooked meal? Rice and peas, some jerk chicken, some veggies, cornbread. You can't beat that."
In 2005, Henry began serving those meals at Irie Jamaican Queen, a restaurant located on West Genesee Street near Genesee Elementary School. There, she prepared entrees like jerk chicken and oxtail for either takeout or dining in an environment with flags, pictures and other flourishes of Jamaican culture. And for a few years, she said, business was good and customers were loyal.
Then came the Great Recession in 2008. Within two years, the resulting damage to the economy forced Henry to close her restaurant.
For years, though, those loyal customers still wanted a taste of Jamaica.
"They would call or text me and say, 'What, you don't think we eat?'" Henry said.
During that time, Irie Jamaican Queen continued through catering and vending at events like the Cayuga Community College Holiday Craft Fair. But Henry wanted to get back to regular business.
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Then, last year, she began reading about food trailers. By June, she bought one — and reopened her restaurant in a smaller, mobile form. Located in front of the Auto Wash on Grant Avenue, the Irie Jamaican Queen food trailer serves jerk chicken, curry chicken, beef patties and more three days a week. Henry also brings the trailer to the Owasco Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings.
Henry said the car wash gave her the high-traffic spot on a provisional basis at first, but made the arrangement permanent after she began bringing in business.
"It's two-in-one," she said. "You can come and get your delicious Jamaican food, and also wash your car."
The food trailer's menu is mostly the same as her restaurant's, Henry said, with the exception of oxtail, which is now a special because it can be hard to secure. She still hopes to open another restaurant someday, she continued, if only to have another dining room with Jamaican decor. But she plans to keep her trailer for special events and mobile sales.
The trailer has its loyal customers, too, many of whom date back to the restaurant, Henry said. She believes they're loyal to her cooking because Jamaican cuisine is both filling and flavorful. Jerk chicken and pork, for instance, are heavily spiced through dry rubs or marinades, then slow-cooked. Meals pair the entree with rice, peas and sides like cornbread.
The Irie Jamaican Queen Facebook page bears out that loyalty, with a 5.0-out-of-5.0 rating based on nine reviews. And those customers are some of the many people Henry thanked for her return to business, along with her "very encouraging" children, Lamar Henry, 29, and Michelle Muirhead, 35; friends Rebecca McLaurin, who also works at the truck, and Patricia Salva; and God.
"Through God, all things are possible," she said. "Follow your dreams and your dreams will come true."