Jamaican Gold: We small but we big!

It’s the end of the month and time for another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the San Antonio hinterland in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of: Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, celebrated local sommelier), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who eats only obscure fruits and grilled meats), and me (a former vegan and known taco-truck stalker). For our special guest we were joined by international artist and man of leisure, Gary Sweeney. As a baggage handler at the San Antonio Airport, Gary travels around the world for free, and basically lives a more exciting life than all of us. (Coincidentally, I learned that Gary had been in a group art show in Hawaii a few years ago with future fellow TWF guest Mat Kubo; see TWF, September 30, 2009, “Run, Rabbit Run”.)

Our travel took us to an interesting stretch of Walzem road by Windcrest. With a diverse population of whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos, this area is another overlooked “Ellis Island.” Though it is sometimes forgotten because of its characteristic existential San Antonio lameness, there is an amazing abundance of culinary treasure for the adventurous foodie with large taste and a small wallet. A few weeks back all four of us went to Bunsen Burger and had an amazing meal. Little did we know that the Current had just been there days before us.

Back to square one, we decided to return to Walzem to explore the area further, fully confident that we would find our next candidate. A few blocks away from Bunsen Burger we saw a tiny brick building with a line out the door and a sign that read “Little Jamaica Foods.” It looks like a place that used to sell Cricket phones. It’s tiny, with room only for drive-through and takeout, but they are already expanding into the larger building next door. In Jamaica there is a saying in patois: We likkle but we tallewah! Translation: We small but we BIG! Little Jamaica Foods embraces this concept fully.

Little Jamaica

4929 Walzem

They’ve only been open for two months but already they have a dedicated customer base from all across town, as we found out while waiting in line in the rain, which none of the regulars were complaining about. On the contrary, they were excited that the kitchen hadn’t run out of oxtail. While we waited, Gary and Frenchie sampled a fascinating and obscure Jamaican soda called Irish Moss, which is full of Caribbean spices, condensed milk, peanut and vanilla flavors, and boiled seaweed, which gives the drink a unique froth and thickness Gary likened to a milkshake.

Little Jamaica also makes its own ginger beer from scratch, as well as fresh vegetable juice. I loved the carrot juice that came with nutmeg and what seemed like a little bit of ginger. I hadn’t even ordered my meal yet and I was ready to return. Owner and chef Ernest Bernard walked through the line tempting the crowd with a fresh fish that was about to go into the oven. He was taking orders, but the scene had the spirit of an auction. While we looked over the menu, customers kept walking out with to-go boxes stacked 3 feet high. We quickly put in an order for a white fish, two plates of jerk chicken ... and the oxtail. Gary and I looked at Frenchie as if to say “Yeah, Frenchie will eat it.”

We were hoping to eat in the back of Gary’s truck, tailgate-style but it was still raining so we went to his house. The plates came with a surprisingly healthy combination of rice, plantains, and baked yams. While we were initially excited about the fish, it was slightly dry and paled in comparison to the jerk chicken and oxtail, which had been slowly cooked for hours. They were full of moisture, fresh spices, and undeniable flavor. I’ve since gone back for the jerk chicken but the oxtail, with its full beef flavor is the Cadillac on the menu. It’s soft, rich, and elegant, and one of the best $12 meals I’ve ever had. If San Antonio can make a tradition out of eating beef diaphragm (aka fajitas), then the oxtail shouldn’t be a huge leap.

Final Thoughts:

Gary: While waiting to order I thought, “I’ll probably go my entire life without having eaten oxtail.” Thirty minutes later, I was chowing down on oxtail meat that was literally melting in my mouth.

Frenchie: That day was gray and rainy, but as soon as we got inside the tiny place to order our food, the sun was shining.

Carlos: The chicken was so tender that I picked up the drumstick and the meat fell off. (That tends to get overused, but it’s actually true.)

Me: For those who don’t eat beef: The fresh carrot juice, baked yam, and spicy jerk chicken is ridiculously good as well. •