Tropical Heat at Caribbean Jerk Cuisine
It's a sweltering day, but I have a plan. What better cure for the hot, sticky-weather blues than some jerk chicken and Red Stripes? I swoop up my best friend and longtime drinking buddy Shaun for some thirst-quenching beers and eats at Caribbean Jerk Cuisine, a hole-in-the-wall joint on Richmond. When we walk into the place, we're all sweaty, and it seams we're a bit early for the dinner rush. But we're immediately welcomed by a tall, beautiful Jamaican woman. A quick look at the menu, and I already know I want to start off with some jerk wings. The Jamaican beauty queen scoots off to put in our order and retrieve our Red Stripes and wings. "I don't even like wings," says Shaun, "but these are really good." He is right.
We begin to cool off with the air conditioning and ice-cold beer, and before we can figure out all the different flavors working in the jerked chicken wings, I'm ready for another Red Stripe. I'm definitely getting a lot of aromatic spices from the sauce covering the wings, but the underlying flavor of the meat makes me wonder if it was grilled over some charcoals in the parking lot in some 55-gallon metal drum cut up and made into a make-shift grill. Whatever the case, these wings are, as the restaurant Web site claims, "the most delicious and finger-licking home-style Caribbean wings in Houston."
The simple menu features traditional foods such as meat patties, roti (flatbread) and various jerked and curried meats, including cow's foot and oxtails. Another long pull on my Red Stripe, and our entrées arrive. I am having the curried goat, one of my favorite dishes, and Shaun is sticking with the jerk chicken. I would have had to try his entrée, a trademark dish for any Caribbean restaurant worth its salt — not to mention a great meal for a hot day — but I can just steal a piece off his plate. We also order coco bread, a soft, yeasty bread made with coconut milk, and some fried dumplings, or "johnnycakes."
The goat is spicy and tender. I take a bite of the meat and then soak up the sauce with a dumpling, like using a biscuit to sop up gravy. The rice on the side is steaming and full of spices like anise and cinnamon; soft green lentils are blended in, and it goes perfectly with the meat. The flavors of the curry are very similar to those of an Indian curry. Most of the dishes that are considered Caribbean or "from the islands" are rustic and come from a melting pepper pot of ethnicity. Flavors from almost every part of the world make up these traditional peasant dishes, which tend to be lesser cuts of meat that need a strong marinade, like jerk (a mixture of spices and chiles), and long, slow cooking.
Though my goat dish is spicy, it's not spicy enough for me. One of the things I love about this cuisine is its liberal use of chiles, especially the habanero and scotch bonnet. There's a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce on the table, but this just will not do, so I ask for some "real" hot sauce. The waitress smiles and returns with a ramekin of a pinkish-looking sauce I doubt has any scotch bonnets in it. But then I break a small sweat, and my lips are on fire. Okay, maybe it has a little bit of capsicum. A young man comes to clear our plates, and I ask him if the hot sauce is homemade. He says yes and asks, "Was it spicy enough? It has habaneros in it." That answers my question.
On my next visit to Caribbean Jerk Cuisine, it's another hot and sticky Houston afternoon, and I'm hung over. I sit down alone at the bar and start with a beef patty — a pastry stuffed with ground meat and spices — some plantains and, of course, a Red Stripe. I begin to chat it up with the woman behind the bar, who comments on my VW van, saying, "Oh, we drive those in Jamaica." It sounds like everybody in the restaurant is from Jamaica, and I take a look around the place, which resembles what I would imagine a small shack on the island would look like, serving beer and a few simple dishes. It has a real irie feel.
There are so many dishes I didn't get to try last time, including the short list of seafood, which could be longer — shrimp and fish make up the only choices. You can order a large or a small redfish or tilapia, prepared to order either steamed, with brown stew, escovitch-style or, of course, jerked. I ask for a large redfish in brown stew, but I am told they are out. So they have three seafood items, and they're out of one of them. I take the tilapia in the brown stew instead. I order it spicy and suck down another Red Stripe.
The fish arrives whole, head on, covered in herbs and piping hot. My face lights up at the sight of the crispy fish eyes checking me out, and the waitress lets out a giggle. She explains that the head and eyes are the best part: "That's where all the nutrients are." A man with dreads sits down next to me at the bar, and I dig into my lunch. The fish has been marinated and then finished in a spicy brown gravy that has kept it moist. This is tropical soul food. The reggae beats flowing from the house speakers are giving me good vibes. So is the beer and the unpretentious feel of this restaurant. With every bite of the tilapia, my taste buds take a trip around the equator. Once again, though, I want even more heat. I ask the lady behind the bar for some of the homemade hot sauce, and she says, "We're all out of it; the cooks used the last of it to make your fish spicy." I hope they don't run out of Red Stripe.
The little tilapia isn't enough to satisfy my big appetite, so I order the oxtails. The Jamaican woman goes back to the kitchen, and I hear some more giggling. I wonder if they're laughing at me. When she returns with my second plate of food, she confirms my suspicions by laughing and nodding at the guy next to me, saying, "I don't know where he is putting all of this."
I attempt to cut into an oxtail, expecting it to be fork-tender, but I'm disappointed to find the meat still stuck to the bone. I love a perfectly braised dish, with the tough cut of meat cooked for hours until it's so tender it falls off the bone, then melts in your mouth. I want to send my plate back and tell them to give it another hour in the pot, but I would just piss off the cook and come off as a jerk (pun intended). And anyway, I can still get the meat off with my fork if I apply enough pressure; it is flavorful and sweet, and the spice makes my nose run a little bit and my forehead sweat.
After I finish off my chewy disks of meat, I ask Giggles if any of the desserts are made in-house. When she says no, I decide to pass up the wide selection of ice creams, even with flavors like rum raisin. I look over the dry erase board's list of fresh juices and wonder if I have enough room in my belly for some soursop or beet/ginger juice, but I decide not to destroy my buzz. After another cold Red Stripe, I head back out into the humidity.
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