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Island Comfort

Reggae Hut starts good and gets butter. (Er, better.)

It was miserably cold when I first found the Reggae Hut -- one of those nasty, damp days peculiar to the Gulf Coast in December. Rain squalled from the lowering blue-gray sky, prematurely dark at four in the afternoon.

We sat for a moment in the car, listening to the engine's cooling ticks and fogging the windows with our breath. Outside, soggy paper scraps and bits of orange peel overflowed from the Dumpster onto the parking lot. I'd rather be at home, I thought, drinking hot chocolate. Wearing bunny slippers.

But we took a deep breath against the garbage aroma and on a three-count threw open the car doors. When we burst through the door of the restaurant, we stopped a startled chef Andrew Walker in his tracks. He looked faintly guilty, either for being found away from his stove or for being caught clutching a packet of commercial cocoa mix in his long, brown fingers.

"You people look like you could use a cup of hot cocoa," he said, recovering quickly. "I was just going to make some for myself." His voice was friendly, soothing, with a warm Kingston lilt. Oh, my prophetic soul; hot cocoa would be just the thing. Even if it does come from a package, I thought meanly.

Feeling like rosy-cheeked children come in from snow-sledding, we began to unwrap and thaw in this funky oasis on the otherwise bleak Almeda strip. Mismatched chairs cluster around cheerfully painted wobbly tables, each sporting a daisy in a vase. Space heaters and a bakerylike aroma of butter and allspice warm the room; Rasta-bright reds, purples and greens adorn the walls. It turns out that everybody who works at the Reggae Hut has contributed something to the casual, island-inspired decor: a primitive portrait of Bob Marley here, a faded Jamaican flag there. "We wanted it to look as easygoing and laid-back as possible," manager Guy Grigsby explained to me later.

And the promised cocoa, when it arrived, was imaginatively spiked with coconut milk and fragrant with vanilla and cinnamon. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to the dry stuff that started out in the packet. "Oh, yes, he doctors it right up," said our waitress with a smile. "I'm glad he made it for you. It's special."

Now thoroughly in the mood for childish treats, we started with an order of "coco" bread ($1), which is a soft, plate-sized roll sweetened with more coconut milk and drizzled with butter. Though as innocently comforting as the fluffy bunny slippers, this dish could lead a double life as a wickedly rich dessert. Next, we tried the plantains ($1.25 for a small order, $1.75 large). Skillet-fried, they were plenty ripe but still firm, not syrupy or mushy, with a faintly caramelized skin.

As the wintry evening closed in, the waitress borrowed matches to light a candle for each table. We lingered, contentedly watching families, friends and neighborhood folks come and go. The Reggae Hut's takeout business is brisk, and the menu admonishes you in a grandmotherly fashion to eat your goodies promptly once you get home. But many customers stayed to eat in, companionably seated elbow to elbow; as many others just came by to visit. For a mean, cold weekday, it looked like a lot of business to me.

Walker's seafood is the major draw; according to Grigsby, a restaurant staffer drives to Kemah every day to buy fresh red snapper, blue crab and Gulf shrimp. "I've had lots of people come by here to try to sell me 'fresh frozen' shrimp," he says. "We just aren't gonna do that. You can tell the difference."

Walker's shrimp dishes form a Forrest Gump-ish litany best read aloud: you can get garlic shrimp, shrimp scampi, stir-fried shrimp or curried shrimp; the snapper roster includes the chef's special whole red snapper, brown stew-style snapper or a marinated snapper "escoveitch." They all have two things in common: lots of unmistakably fresh seafood and a whole lot of butter. We're talking oceans of butter. The shrimp scampi ($8.25), for example, features at least a dozen large shrimp on a thick bed of sweet white rice, swamped with a full cup, maybe two, of rich lemon-butter sauce generously speckled with chunks of garlic.

I tried to take the moral high ground. Such excess is almost like cheating on a culinary exam; after all, a stick of butter can make anything taste good. But it's hard to remember such grown-up concerns at the Reggae Hut, much less to stick to your New Year's resolutions. Take, for example, the temptation of the garlic crab, a gloriously messy dish and a bargain at $6.95. A whole fresh-steamed blue crab, cleaned and split, perches atop a mountain of rice rising from a garlicky lake of melted butter. Nicely steamed vegetables ring the plate -- cauliflower, carrots, squash -- and dam the flow of butter. The friend who ordered it promptly took over half the tabletop with his cracker, picks and empty plates for shells and got right down to work. We didn't hear a word from him for the next half-hour. When he'd picked out every last morsel and finally surfaced with a greasy, blissful smile, we threatened to firehose him clean.

The jerk chicken is another Reggae Hut favorite and quite different from what I've had elsewhere. For $6.25 you get an entire half chicken, served with an enormous heap of island-style rice and pigeon peas, and steamed vegetables. Walker bakes his jerk chicken instead of grilling it, so it's moist and falling-off-the-bone tender, almost stewed. Allspice, rather than cayenne, dominates the spice mix, so the chicken comes out a deep, burnished mahogany, and I'll bet the sauce is enriched with another stick of butter.

Both the garlic crab and the jerk chicken make me crave a Red Stripe beer; nothing else will do, although, strangely, it's a beer I don't much like otherwise. (Those who like Red Stripe should drop by on Wednesdays, or "Irie day," when bottles are $1.50 all day long.) The Reggae Hut also offers colorful soft drinks, such as the fizzy amber "Kola champagne" from Jamaica, or grapefruit Ting, but that's about it for beverages until the restaurant upgrades its beer and wine license.

"We'll have a real happy hour someday soon," promises Grigsby. A "real" bar is already in the works, as last week the Hut's three owners -- Kevin Bingham, Gary Mosley and chef Walker -- knocked a hole in the wall to expand into the space next door. The add-on room will hold five new dining tables and some booths, plus a standup bar. "And if we get that liquor license, maybe we'll put in a bellini machine!" says Grigsby with a grin.

Reggae Hut, 4814 Almeda, 524-2905.

Got a hot restaurant tip or an interesting piece of food news? E-mail Margaret Briggs at margaret_briggs@houstonpress.com.

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