North Charles Caribbean Joint Provides Heat On Cool Winter Nights
There's nothing like a bitter January night to stir fantasies of clement tropical islands. But those of us without the flash to jump on Air Jamaica have to make do with locally available comforts. This urge for escapism on the cheap is what led me to Caribbean Paradise Restaurant & Lounge (1818 N. Charles Street,  332-8422), a Jamaican restaurant I had noticed during regular rounds to the Charles Theatre and Club Charles--Paradise lying, in this case, half a block north of these landmarks.
The front windows are painted in capital letters with tag lines announcing the tropical treats served within: curried goat. oxtail. plantains. This turns out to function as the de facto menu, as the only other board of fare is literally a small menu letter board listing a handful of main dishes and sides. The price structure is correspondingly simple: With the exception of a market-priced fish of the day, everything is $9.45--"everything" meaning your choice of jerk chicken, curry goat, curry chicken, oxtail, or brown stew chicken, served with two sides.
To our pleasant surprise, we learned that, as hoped, the "lounge" part of the name means that they do sell alcohol here, a full-service bar's worth. This is rare among local Caribbean eateries, most of which seem to be storefront carry-outs without tables and chairs, much less imported beer. So after placing a food order at the bar with September--Caribbean Paradise's hostess-server-bartender-cook--we settled in with a round of Red Stripes.
The best way to gauge any Jamaican restaurant is to take a peek into the beverage cooler. I was delighted to see my favorite (and difficult to find) drink: Ting, a grapefruit soda imported from Jamaica. There was D&G ginger beer on hand too; in the islands, D&G is to ginger beer what Coke is to cola, so this was a portent of Good Eats Coming. There was also coconut water (with jelly! according to the label), peanut punch, and a milky, nacreous-looking brew labeled grand slam stud tonic.
September delivered plates to our table as the food was ready. Jerk chicken arrived first, and turned out to be a mildly sweet and smoky treatment, molasses sweetness giving way to a pleasantly fiery pepper after-burn. Along for the ride came rice and peas ("peas" are red beans, by the way, not the usual green legumes), plain but hearty; this starch's standard function is to sop up excess sauce and help extinguish mouth-burn. Another side of steamed vegetables had, alas, been cooked past the point of crispness or flavor.
Curry goat was served with chunks of potato in a rich brown sauce that disappointingly had only a mild curry flavor. The stewed meat was enjoyably gamy and fall-off-the-bone tender (and there were lots of bones, so caveat eater), but it lacked the lively flavor the dish is known for.
As for the fish, I must admit to chickening out and ordering the red snapper brown stew style ($12.95) rather than escovitch. (The latter style involves the fish being cooked in habanero peppers and onions, and I've had some memorably gut-wrenching encounters with too-hot-to-handle Jamaican peppers, so . . . buk, buk, braawk). "Brown stew" refers to the sauce that the fish is braised in, a more laid-back preparation with only mild peppers involved. The fish itself was whole--meaning head-on, as requested--snapper and was absolutely terrific: perfectly cooked, firm, and moist, with hints of soy and allspice. Again, beware of teeny needle bones--"whole fish" means the whole dang Lujanus campejanus.
The high point of the meal, though, wasn't the fish, but the superb fried sweet plantains we ordered to accompany our entrées. Sweet and starchy, the golden slices were barely crisp on the outside and buttery soft within. So many places overcook plantains until they become leathery, but Caribbean Paradise does the big banana right.
For dessert, there were two kinds of cake available, at $2.50 a slice. Jamaican black cake looked like a dark-chocolate confection but was more like gingerbread in its dense, moist texture and fruity, rum-soaked flavor. Its creator--who was September's only evident helper--confirmed that despite the cocoa color, the cake contains only ground raisins, nuts, rum, and spices for flavoring. The results are flat-out wonderful. And so is the rum nut cake, an airy yellow Bundt cake spiked with nut pieces and slathered with a rum-laced hard sugar frosting.
We lingered for a long time in Caribbean Paradise, enjoying the travel posters and reggae music in the as-close-as-it-gets tropical atmosphere. Authentic as the food is, you can find better elsewhere. But the comfortable setting, late hours (till 2 a.m., perfect for après-theater noshing), full bar, and proximity to our favorite haunts ensure a return in the near future--maybe to catch some live music (on weekends) in the upstairs lounge.
Open Monday-Thursday noon-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon-2 a.m. Live music Friday and Saturday. Nosh the good nosh: Dishthis@hotmail.com.