The weather outside is frightful, but one of Kalamazoo’s newest dining establishments is an experience that is sure to melt that Michigan chill, and deliver you and your tastebuds straight to the tropics. JungleBird, located on the ground floor of the Exchange Building on Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo, opened its doors to the public in September and has quickly built a reputation thanks to an extensive, exciting cocktail menu, and a menu that is rooted in Caribbean fare.
I chose a blustery December evening to take a much-needed island vacation and set my sights on JungleBird. With reservations set for a weekday evening, my dining companion and I arrived early with the intention of enjoying a bit of the happy hour menu, which would end at 6 p.m. The hostess was happily flexible with our request to start our evening at the bar, and we snagged a seat at the stunning bar top.
Promptly and eagerly greeting us, our bartenders were attentive and helpful with assisting us as we made our difficult decisions regarding drinks. I landed on the popular Labaya Fresca ($7, happy hour pricing), which was a glorious fusion of rum, strawberry puree, citrus, soda, and garnished with berries and mint. My date picked The Painkiller ($10, happy hour pricing) and we were both floored by its ideal mix of rum, pineapple, orange, coconut, and a dusting of nutmeg to finish. Both drinks transported us to a warmer climate, and we felt ourselves slip into vacation-mode.
The atmosphere of JungleBird is worth the trip alone, featuring a large dining area with private booths or low-top seating, a custom bar, a private dining section, and outdoor patio seating. Splashed throughout the restaurant are pops of art-deco and vibrant, colorful tributes to Cuban culture. There is an obvious attention to detail that goes beyond food or drink, and this added element is what made our visit instantly unforgettable.
When it was time for us to disembark from the cocktail lounge and adventure onto the dining portion of our night, we were taken to a private booth with low-lighting and spacious seating. We had taken an opportunity to peruse the menu already, and ordered an appetizer of the Caribbean Sticky Wings ($16) and the Ahi Tuna Tartar Tostada ($18). The wings arrived first and spoiled us rotten. Although you get just four on a plate, these wings are plump, whole, and beautifully glazed in a sweet and salty sauce. We ate them in total silence, only taking breaks to lament on how we didn’t order more.
The blue corn tostada was equally delightful, piled high with fresh tuna, cucumber, Serrano and Anaheim chilis, and served with a selection of dipping sauces. One of these is a “House Haut Sauce” that was, in fact, quite spicy. With my mouth tingling, it was the perfect time for me to order a Puka Punch ($15), a cocktail made with a blend of rums, lime, orange, passion fruit, honey, pineapple, and mint.
The next leg of our journey would be entrees, and my date picked the Lomo Saltado ($30). This plate features a grilled flank steak rubbed with chipotle and coffee, served alongside Spanish rice, sautéed peppers and onion, and a healthy portion of french fries. It wasn’t listed on the menu but this order did arrive with a cooked egg on top of the meat, and was then topped with an earthy, aji amarillo sauce. The beef was full-flavored, and the notes of coffee were a surprising and welcome addition, while the veggies offered texture and variety to the meal.
For my entree I selected the Chilean Salmon ($28). My fish was light and delicate, having obviously been cooked to perfection and served beside a helping of cilantro-lime-coconut rice. Beneath the salmon was a bed of yellow squash and zucchini that had been tossed in a bright, tangy lime and garlic vinaigrette. My meal was fresh and didn’t feel heavy, despite the fact I nearly cleaned my plate!
With blind-optimism we handed over our empty entree plates to our outstanding server (seriously, ask for Amber), and put in one final order for our dessert: Cinnamon Churros ($10). We quickly forgot our stomachs were stuffed to capacity as they were sat down in front of us, six cinnamon-doused rings of fried dough served with a spiced chocolate cremosa designed to weaken your knees. We each had a churro, again only speaking in exclamations to describe how much we loved them, before we finally accepted that our meal-vacation had come to an end, and boxed the remaining dessert to take home.
Some final notes
This holiday season remember to be kind to your restaurant staff. Nearly every establishment is operating with fewer employees than is optimal, and this potentially affects everything from the cleanliness of the dining room to the speed at which you receive your order. We were a bit surprised that our dining experience at JungleBird took over three hours, and at times we did feel a twinge of disappointment at how long it took a few of our plates to be delivered.
We recognized, however, that we were there to relax and unwind, and we reminded ourselves to feel grateful for the tireless work hospitality workers are providing this season. We left our date night that evening with two takeaways: 1. JungleBird is an oasis that feeds both your body and your soul. 2. Cinnamon churros.
Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. For more SW Michigan foodie reviews, follow along with Beca on Instagram: @bites.with.beca