Mention Jamaica even once to a music buff and reggae, rocksteady, and ska should spring to mind. Say the same to a foodie and jerk's the inevitable image. Though I have paid homage to the music at the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaican food also pulls my chain. And at Jamaica Jamaica, a bright and squeaky-clean place on Austin Highway, there's much more on offer than knee-jerk jerk.
Ackee and saltfish, for example, is called Jamaica's national dish, and I had it more than once in place. It's not the kind of dish that will ever make it to the top of the charts in this country, but it needs to be tried. Ackee is a pretty (but poisonous when unripe) fruit with a cooked texture something like hard-scrambled eggs; saltfish is, yes, salted cod. Cooked together, the fish becomes less salty-fishy than one might imagine, and the whole is helped by onion, the usual unnamed herbs and spices and a hint of scotch bonnet chili. I added more of JJ's incendiary scotch bonnet sauce to both the main dish and the otherwise bland boiled green plantain and yam that came alongside and was perfectly happy. Nothing, however, could make palatable the deuce of "dumplings" that was also served; if Jamaicans played ice hockey (and we know they have fielded bobsledders), we could call them pucks. As it is, we'll just say you might have had to grow up with them.
We also hasten to say that we pretty much loved everything else. As an appetizer or a light snack, the patties are much like the empanadas or turnovers of many cultures: dough-encased packets of, in this case, curried chicken, beef, or vegetables. Only the beef and chicken were available when I asked, and I'd call the choice a toss-up: the chicken is boldly curry-flavored, the beef less assertive but with a crust flavored and colored by, we suppose, the likes of turmeric. Get both. And order a drink made from fresh ginger and pineapple as an accompaniment; it's surprising and seriously good. (An application to sell alcoholic beer and wine has been made, so Red Stripe and Guinness soon will be other options.)
JJ's Small Entrée section allows the newbie to sample several dishes in reduced quantities at prices ranging from $5.99 for roast pork to $7.99 for the curry goat. Get the goat. It's boneless, the curry is not too outspoken, and the accompanying fried ripe plantains are a perfect complement. The rice with pigeon peas isn't bad, either. A naturally sweet steamed cabbage also comes with entrées, and it's just fine with even the jerk tofu. Yes, tofu. Previously labeled with a three-flame heat warning symbol, the tofu is one of about four dishes on the menu that were toned down to placate wimpy local palates, but it can still be ordered very spicy. We did. The first bite was challenging, but you get used to it in a hurry — not that I'll order it again. It's useful to have a vegetarian option on the menu, but there's otherwise little but heat to be had.
Caribbean brisket, marinated in Myers's Rum with spices (we always suspect allspice, maybe thyme), is hearty and rich despite the thinness of the meat. The same marinade with a touch of honey makes for a slightly mellower stovetop jerk chicken, but, again, it's almost a toss-up. Pass on the seductive-sounding but pasty coco bread. But do not fail to order the superb coconut pie. As claimed our charming Colombian waitress, the only non-Jamaican in the place, "it's just sweet enough." True true. Bravo bravo.
2011 Austin Highway
Best Bets Patties of beef or chicken, curry goat, Caribbean brisket, ginger beef with pineapple, coconut pie.
Hours 11am-9pm Tue-Fri, noon-9pm Sat
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