The recent cold snaps have had me craving warmth. Warm hearts, warm thoughts, warm feelings -- they all start, I'm convinced, with a warm stomach. So when I noticed the tropical promise of the Reggae Cafe, tucked into a corner of the Briargrove Shopping Center, I rubbed my hands together and went for it. An hour and a full meal later, I emerged breathing enough fire to keep my car toasty the whole way home.
"Hot" is the first word at Reggae Cafe. I could only offer sympathy to the young mother who, discreetly pointing to the newborn she was still breast-feeding, asked if there was anything available that wasn't spicy. Though the menu kindly offers to modify a dish's spiciness on request, I don't know how that would be possible in the case of a selection such as, say, the jerk chicken, which has marinated for hours in a pepper-laden mash of seasonings. How, I wondered, do breast-feeding Jamaican moms deal with that problem? I envisioned an islandful of pepper-immune infants with digestive tracts of iron.
Still, even if you're a chile wimp, there's no reason to be scared off from Reggae Cafe. There's plenty to like at this spice island, even if you're not one of those gastronomes who believe that the primary rule of cooking is "the hotter the better." The trick is to make the cooking competent enough not to be obliterated by heat and keep the heat quotient low enough that a few swigs of beer or sucking on an ice cube for a few seconds will offer relief. Does Reggae Cafe's cuisine meet these criteria? Definitely -- and usually.
If heat is word one at the Reggae Cafe, "meat" is word two. Yes, the menu offers a section of vegetable-based dishes, and yes, most of them are exotic enough to be interesting. Take, for instance, the akee and codfish, touted on the menu as "Jamaica's national dish." When cooked and tossed with scallions and onions and morsels of fish flesh, akee looks like eggs scrambled huevos-style, ready to slap onto a tortilla and slather with ranchero sauce. But akee, a tender, yellow fruit in its raw form, actually resembles a squash in consistency and flavor once it's segregated from its shell and red pods and cooked. The cod, being cod, was extraordinarily -- which is not to say unpleasantly -- fishy. Unfortunately, though, the whole concoction was oversalted, a not uncommon problem among Reggae Cafe's offerings.
Now that I've tried the native Jamaican akee, for vegetables at Reggae Cafe I'll stick with the more familiar side dishes: the rice, whose cinnamony overtone has an odd cooling effect on a tongue assaulted with more aggressive seasonings, and the fried plantain flaps, which are mushy yet firm. These accompaniments, along with sweet fried breadsticks known as Festival, are a proper setup for the many meat and fish items that are the restaurant's real distinction.
As it happens, my favorite dish at Reggae Cafe is the same as owner Stanley Etoria's: brown stewed snapper fillet. ("Red stew" might be a more accurate title, not only because of the tomato-based stock's hue, but also as a descriptive appellation of that ever-present fire factor.) The pinkish-silver scales of the snapper fillet barely glowed through the sauce, which was chock full of julienned carrots, onions and scallions. Likewise, the fish flavor of the pan-fried fillet was just noticeable through the gravy, which was two parts tomato tang to one part mellow burn.
The warmth-adding component in this and most other Jamaican recipes is the Jamaican Scotch bonnet pepper. Etoria, determined to remain as authentic as possible to his native cuisine, obtains most of his Jamaican ingredients directly from his homeland. As a result, ordering a meal at Reggae Cafe can be a hit-or-miss game, because on many days there are likely to be at least one or two items that aren't available. On one of my visits, there were no plantains; on the next, fried plantains were available, but not the plantain turnover; on another, no bammie, a bread made from cassava. I was never lucky enough to show up at a time when I could sample the Irish Moss, described intriguingly as "a thick shake made from a natural aphrodisiac from the ocean." A notice posted next to the daily specials could apply to the entire menu: "When it's gone, it's gone." Fortunately, these truancies most often apply to the menu's incidentals, not its mainstays. If you decide to try one of Reggae Cafe's more popular menu items, you'll likely luck out. One such selection is the curry goat, in which cubes of fibrous meat have been stewed until they're nearly disintegrating in a compellingly aromatic curry paste. Goat meat, gamier and muskier than other domestic red meats, is especially well-suited to a treatment as potentially overpowering as a hearty curry. You'll probably also score if you ask for any of the chicken dishes, either the chicken fricassee, whose piquant tomato gravy is a perfect complement on a sampler platter to the goat meat's thicker, turmeric-hued curry, or the Caribbean classic, jerk chicken. The jerk method (there exist theories -- none definitive -- about where the name originated) of preparation, which can be applied to many types of meat, involves a long marinating session in an infusion of Scotch bonnet peppers, ginger, thyme, onions and scallions. In Jamaica, the meat would then be smoked on an open fire over the wood of the tree that provides us with the seasoning allspice. But Etoria, not having access to either an open fire or the right kind of wood, uses the black seed of the allspice tree in his seasoning combo and then grills his meat. When the cooking is done, he bastes the chicken in brown sugar. The result? A burnt-sweet, oniony taste and an in-your-face, lip-burning heat. Considering the restaurant's devotion to authenticity and powerful flavors, occasional lapses in these chicken dishes such as dryish meat and oversalting are forgivable.
To cool diners' mouths at meal's end, Reggae Cafe offers a dessert drink of sorrel, an intensely sweet, intensely ginger-flavored brew made from a flower that blooms once a year in Jamaica. Also cooling are any one of the four ice cream flavors: the creamy and pineapple-y sour sop (another tropical fruit), the tart-sweet mango, the heavily boozed (or at least heavily booze flavored) rum raisin and the great nut, with particles of a Grape Nut-like crunch factor suspended throughout.
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From all the little touches that add to Reggae Cafe's feel of authenticity, you can tell that Etoria is homesick for his island. Bob or Ziggy perpetually wailing over the loudspeakers, the waitresses' island patois and "soon come" attitude toward service, the vividly pastel-tinted gingerbread trim and the corrugated tin roof over the bar all pay whimsical homage to a true Jamaican hangout. And every time I laid eyes on Stanley Etoria, I couldn't help but wonder if he didn't have a headful of dreadlocks hidden away beneath his crisp white chef's toque. He's considering taking that toque and going home at the end of the year, when he'll finish a five-year lease on his current space. A lot will depend, one can't help but infer, on the level of business he sees this year.
Though I'm not exactly on a crusade, I would hate to see this bona fide Jamaican joint leave town. As an inducement to visit Reggae Cafe, I'll mention one more thing: just prior to the first time I walked through the doors, someone suggested I try the meat pie. In my notebook, I summed up my reaction to what on the menu is described as "beef patty" in two succinct words: perfectly great.
Reggae Cafe, 6100 Westheimer No. 120, 977-3963.
Reggae Cafe: snapper fillet, $7.95; jerk chicken, $4.95 lunch, $9.50 dinner; curried goat, $4.95 lunch, $8 dinner.