Jamaican Food Fit for a Queen
Some restaurants require you to go with the flow. Some demand a leap of faith, insisting that you place yourself entirely in your server's hands. On a recent Monday night we did both.
C.C. and I had misgivings about Carolyn's Café , a small Jamaican place around the corner from the Babe Ruth Museum downtown. Take the table settings: mismatched flatware and neon flexi-straws in a glass. Take the menu: a single page of food items divided into the categories "Earth," "Fire," "Air," and "Water." Take the drink names: mannish water, fish tea, Irish moss. Taking her cue from the latter, C.C. was starting to look a bit green.
Enter Queen Nzinga, ruler of Carolyn's: hostess, server, barkeep, cultural liaison, and half--the more vocal half--of our dinner entertainment. The other half was her husband, chef Ras Doobie, a large man in a small kitchen, working up a sweat behind the scenes and turning out big platters of fresh, home-cooked food. As we pondered our choices, Queen Nzinga terrified us by explaining that the Scotch bonnet-based sauce on each table was mild compared to her husband's jerk sauce. Scotch bonnet, for those untutored in the complexities of peppers, is one of the world's hottest.
Ordering can be confusing. The menu includes multiple chicken and fish preparations as well as oxtail and goat, but on any given night only a sampling of the listed items are available along with a handful of specials. (Call ahead to inquire.) Lots of dishes come in a brown sauce. The queen's sauce soliloquy in mind, we eschewed the jerk chicken, the only fowl on deck that night; I went for a special, roast lamb ($12), while C.C. ordered the vegetarian Negril burger ($8).
Neither the menu nor the queen explained the trickiest part of ordering--the pricing. We eventually discerned that $8 buys you one entrée, $12 two entrées with two sides. Meanwhile, the going rate for specials appears to be $12. Don't ask me what happens if you want two specials; talk to the queen, she'll work it out for you.
When we announced we were famished, the queen brought us coco bread, a soft and warm concoction somewhere between a large roll and a small loaf with a seductive hint of sweetness. We gobbled two of them immediately, then rocked back with our bottles of Red Stripe ($3.50).
My lamb was a bit overcooked (though still tender) and could have used more of the "au jus"--although the jus may have been soaked up by Queen Nzinga's brown rice and black beans. The sides were fair, but the best was C.C.'s choice, Ras Doobie's rice and peas (for peas, read small red kidney beans), which was luscious. My fried plantains and C.C.'s mixed steamed greens, heavy on the kale, were also very good. The big surprise of the evening was the veggie burger. Even if, like me, you generally loathe veggie burgers, try this one--especially after the queen tops it with bean sprouts, tomato, a dab of mayo, and the traditional, mustard-y Southern relish known as chow chow. I'll never badmouth veggie burgers again, I'll just only come here to eat them.
The queen makes all the desserts except for Ras Doobie's sweet-potato puddin' ($4), an enormous slab of ginger-heavy confection, more a pie than a pudding. I tried a dreamy slice of lemon-lime coconut pie ($1.50)--sweet yet lively with fruit flavors and crunchy with coconut.
We were happy with our culinary excursion until a few days later, when we were taken to task by our friend Sandra, who comes from the island. "Roast lamb? Veggie burger? You didn't eat nothing Jamaican!" she exclaimed. She approved of the plantains and the rice with peas but ordered us to return to Carolyn's for a true taste of her homeland.
Accordingly, we had a second, brief audience with the queen involving takeout: $5 "side" orders of jerk chicken, curried goat, and oxtails. We added some plantains and coco bread, then invited our friends Collin and Raquel for a Hanukkah/Christmas feast.
The oxtails, in a savory brown sauce, were fatty but richly flavored and immensely tender, as was the bonier, leaner goat, swimming (with the occasional chunk of potato) in a spicy green-tinged sauce. Raquel thought the goat meat looked and tasted like brisket. Only Collin found the jerk chicken too spicy; the rest of us tempered the fire with the plantains and coco bread and kept on eating. The heat built but stayed within a tolerable range, allowing the fabulous blend of flavors (thyme, coriander, ginger, and allspice, among others) that go into the marinade/rub to emerge unscathed.
The whole meal was a bit like eating steamed crabs, I thought, fighting through the bones and gristle and fat for the prize morsels. As we packed up the leftovers I recalled Queen Nzinga's final carry-out words: "Let me know how you like it!" A lot, Your Highness, a lot.
Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (but call before you go).