Island Dreams

When the Reggae Hut's owners say they serve up "authentic Jamaican food and vibe," they aren't exaggerating. Like the gentle motion of waves in the Caribbean Sea, a steady reggae beat rocks hypnotically from speakers in the ceiling of the small Jamaican storefront restaurant on Almeda, creating subliminal images of beautiful beaches, pirates and sunken cities, the magical Blue Mountains with their rich, exotic history and the wonderful warmth of an island people. It's enchanting -- and that's one reason why this funky place is giving me a crisis of conscience. Because the Reggae Hut boasts at most 20 tiny tables, I'm not sure more people need to be in on the secret of its existence. If they were, there might not be room for me.

No doubt Reggae Hut owners Gary Mosley, Kevin Bingham and Andrew Walker don't share my concern. They'd love to have to turn people away for lack of space. Mosley has been in the restaurant business here and in Washington, D.C., for years. Bingham is an architect who knows and likes island food. Walker spent several years cooking at Houston's old Marcus Garvey restaurant. That place, a kind of home base for displaced islanders and American Rastas alike, featured the true taste of the Caribbean. When it closed, Walker wanted to open his own place, but lacked a business track record. Enter Bingham and Mosley. In the nine months Reggae Hut has been open, it has steadily increased in popularity. The locals have learned that Walker and his fellow islanders, chef Harry Edwards and baker Carl Rodin, know how to walk that fine line between fiery Jamaican-style recipes and the preferences of U.S. taste buds. And their balancing act is a true work of art.

The food served on the Hut's mismatched Fiestaware isn't fancy, it's just plain good. A typically basic appetizer are the patties ($1.50), said to be an island take on Cornish pasties from England. The Reggae Hut's version of this baked pastry pocket is filled with shredded beef, chicken or vegetables. And its orange-y crust is slightly crisp and vaguely sweet.

The rich and flavorful curry goat ($6.95) is a Jamaican signature dish that features substantial chunks of tender cabrito, with the bones still very much in evidence. The meat is stewed in a savory, piquant East Indian curry sauce and served with a side order of rice and peas, the island version of a traditional African dish that in the Southern U.S. became red beans and rice. There's also a mound of unusual mixed vegetables that includes small sections of corn on the cob, squash, tomato and bok choy, the last a legacy of Jamaica's numerous Asian immigrants.

Jerk chicken ($6) features large pieces of meat rubbed with a secret combination of chiles and spices then marinated and grilled. It's served with the same combination of side dishes as the other entrees, and is more than spicy enough for all but a Trinidadian friend of mine, who actually used the Reggae Hut's HiTech hot sauce to help spice it up. The HiTech is serious stuff; the Scotch bonnet peppers in this flaming red concoction would have most Houstonians calling 911.

There's no need for fire extinguishers when the table shares a round of fresh-from-the-oven cocoa bread, though. Priced at a single buck, this has to be one of the best bakery bargains in town. The shape and texture of the bread is like that of Indian nan, or a really thick pita. And the taste, in keeping with the name, has a subtle but real hint of chocolate. Toasty on one side, buttery on the other, then folded in two at the last moment, it's a genuine delight.

Less delightful, but still worthwhile, are the plantains (75 cents/$1.50). More like thick banana slices than the chiplike green version featured in many Cuban restaurants, these are lightly fried and fairly sweet. They work well as an accompaniment to savory entrees such as the brown stew chicken ($6), cooked until meltingly tender in a lightly spiced brown gravy studded with chunks of carrot and potato.

The whole red snapper with bones ($8.95) is perhaps the star of the menu. This serving of head-on fresh fish is easily eight inches long, and because it's cooked to order, plan to wait awhile. But trust me: It's well worth the time. On recent visits, the fish was perfectly moist and tender beneath its blanket of stewed savories that includes tomatoes, pimentos and Spanish thyme.

Not everything on the menu is strictly Jamaican. The curry shrimp ($7.25), for example, is more Asian than West Indian. The curry sauce itself is almost neon green and heavy with chunks of barely stir-fried yellow onions and green peppers. It's not at all incendiary, and should suit folks not particularly inclined to try more exotic dishes.

Among those dishes is the mysterious Irish Moss ($3.95). Intrigued by the name, I tried to order the milkshake-like concoction. My waitress wouldn't bring it to me. The drink, she said, couldn't be served to ladies.

It's not often you hear that in a restaurant. So I promptly dragooned a male friend to serve as a front and returned to try the drink. It turned out to be bisque-colored and milky sweet with a kind of clovelike aftertaste that, I learned, is the flavor of powdered sea moss. My laughing companion, a native of Dominica, informed me that this lichen enjoys a Caribbean-wide reputation for "strengthening the man." Hmmm.

The peanut butter punch ($3.95) is probably more fattening than strengthening, but it's worth every calorie. Thicker and richer than any shake, it tastes for all the world like Reese's peanut butter cups liquefied and blended into cold, melted Blue Bell French vanilla -- the perfect drink to sip while imagining white sand beaches, fragrant breezes and the constant steady murmur of the Caribbean waves.

Reggae Hut, 4814 Almeda Boulevard, 524-2905.

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