The Jamaican curry goat at Tropical Grill on Bissonnet is a sumptuous, spicy stew containing long-cooked pieces of meat clinging to chunks of bone. I try to explain to my wary dining companions that the goat bones are responsible for the rich flavor of the curry gravy. But they aren't buying it. Likewise, they're leery of the escovitch fish, a tasty tilapia that has been marinated with a spicy vinegar-and-pepper sauce, fried whole, cut into large pieces and served on the bone.
For hard-core Jamaican food lovers like me, Tropical Grill's buffet line, available Friday and Saturday from one in the afternoon until eight in the evening, is well worth the $10 price tag. Nestled under the covers of the stainless-steel chafing dishes, along with the stellar curry goat and the escovitch fish, are hard-to-find Jamaican classics like velvety, soft-stewed tripe, tangy boiled green bananas and chunky homemade dumplings. An even more elaborate buffet that includes roasted breadfruit -- a rare starchy tropical tree fruit -- is served on Sunday afternoons.
But unfortunately, my usually adventurous companions find little they want to eat among the classic Jamaican entrées. "Too carcass-y," my blond tablemate declares, despairing of the bones that seem to lurk in every dish on the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Instead, she gets one of the flaky Jamaican meat-filled pastries called a patty (pronounced "pah-TAY"). The ground-meat pies are her favorite item at Tropical Grill. She dips each bite into a gob of Matouk's hot sauce that she's poured onto her plate. The sweet-hot, golden-colored Caribbean pepper sauce is made with Scotch bonnet peppers and papayas.
"The stewed tripe doesn't have any bones," I joke, offering to feed her some off my plate. She sneers as if to say, "Very funny."
While the buffet may be too arcane for some diners, it does include such approachable items as shrimp salad with mango dressing, spicy jerk chicken, creole chicken with sausage, and rice and peas, which is the Jamaican version of beans and rice.
Those who don't crave Jamaican soul food would probably be best advised to skip the buffet altogether and take advantage of Tropical Grill's extremely inexpensive weekday lunch specials instead. From 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., a plate of curried, stewed or jerk chicken with salad and rice and peas goes for just $4.50.
Unlike most of the clove-scented crap that passes for jerk seasoning in the United States, the kitchen at Tropical Grill is using the real thing. It is a thick, fragrant rub made with lots of fresh thyme leaves, a nice dose of Scotch bonnets and plenty of spices. In fact, it tastes just like the stuff they sell in reused pickle jars at the jerk shacks of Boston Beach on the northeast coast of Jamaica.
When Tropical Grill's jerk chicken is wood-smoked, as it was on my first visit, it's sensational. But unfortunately, the chicken on the buffet tastes like it's been baked in the oven rather than authentically barbecued.
Tropical Grill is a tiny restaurant with a modest interior. One wall is covered with fake brick; the others are paneled. The trim is painted in the dramatic green, yellow and black of the Jamaican flag. An air of informality is maintained by a big-screen television that blares at all times, yet the tables are incongruously set with elegant white-and-gold linens and elaborately folded napkins.
The most charming thing about this place is the soft-spoken waiter, chef and owner, Neville Monteith. The chef grew up in the Port Antonio region of Jamaica. I fell in love with that area while writing my first cookbook, Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork & Spoon, which I co-authored with Jay McCarthy, a Texas chef who grew up on the island. While I didn't tell Monteith I was the co-author of a Jamaican cookbook, I did chat with him about the restaurants of Port Antonio, the Boston Beach jerk shacks and some methods for roasting frozen breadfruit. (He recommends the microwave.)
Monteith began his culinary career at the Trident Villa Hotel, a fabulous old resort near his home. He went on to work for the Royal Caribbean cruise line and ended up at some of the top hotel kitchens in the United States, including the Beverly Hilton and the Royal Biscayne. His last hotel gig was at Houston's Intercontinental Hotel.
"Houston, me cooking now!" reads the headline above the biography of chef Monteith on Tropical Grill's menu. The smiling chef struck out on his own to pursue his passion: the food of his homeland. Not only does he cook the island's most famous dishes, he serves them up with popular Jamaican condiments. There's Matouk's and Grace's hot sauces on the table, and I'm sure he could come up with some Pickapeppa if you wanted some.
Jamaican soft drinks are something special, and Tropical Grill has a wide range of choices. The ginger beer is really spicy, and the Kola Champagne tastes like fizzy honey. But my favorite is the tart grapefruit soda called Ting. Though Tropical Grill has no liquor license, you can bring your own Red Stripe.
Caribbean food is a multicultural blend of Native American, Spanish, French, English, African and Indian influences layered one upon the other. The Indians came to the Caribbean as sugarcane field workers after slavery ended. Curry is common in the Caribbean, but there aren't a lot of complicated variations like there are in India. Most Caribbean chefs rely on one favorite brand of curry powder. The most common is Chief from Trinidad, the island with the most Indian-descended inhabitants.
"Do you use Chief curry powder?" I ask Monteith after eating his curry chicken one afternoon.
"No, I like Chief, but it only comes in three-ounce packages here," Monteith says. "So now I use Blue Mountain curry, but I have to add some hot peppers to it because it's too mild."
I always add more hot sauce to Tropical Grill's curries. I suspect that all those years in hotel kitchens has convinced chef Monteith to tone down the seasonings. His food is authentically Jamaican -- except for the timid spices.
And then there's the question of the occasionally smokeless jerk. After my visit, I call the chef and ask him a few questions. As I suspected, the sensational wet jerk paste is made at the restaurant according to his own recipe. And as I also suspected, he doesn't always smoke the meat.
"I smoke it 90 percent of the time, but sometimes when I get busy, I just put it in the oven," he says. This is somewhat akin to pouring sauce on spare ribs, baking them in the oven and calling it barbecue. Without the smoke, it's not the same thing.
Monteith won't disclose what kind of wood he uses when he does smoke his jerk. In Boston Beach, they use wood from the allspice trees that grow wild on that part of the coast. The wood produces what may be the most fragrant smoke on the planet. I ask if he's importing allspice wood. "No, but there are alternatives," he says cryptically. I'm still trying to figure out what that means.
Tropical Grill is an enjoyable hangout and an inexpensive place to sample authentic Jamaican cuisine. If you aren't familiar with Caribbean cookery, don't worry about what to order, just put yourself in the hands of chef Monteith. And if you already love Jamaican food, stop by on the weekend for the "bones and all" buffet and a cold Ting.
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