I can't claim to be a sports-bar aficionado. In fact, you'd probably have to slip a rufie in my sidecar and haul me, sagging and blurry-eyed, to the door to get me to enter one. But something about Jamaica Station Restaurant and Sports Bar put me right at ease. Maybe it was the portrait of Bob Marley smiling down at our table.
In fact, Jamaica Station had none of the hallmarks of other sports bars: the glass cases filled with used bats and secondhand trophies, the multiple wide-screen televisions waging an ESPN vs. ESPN2 battle, the fourteen lite beers on tap. Autographed photos of minor-league reggae stars, not second-string ball players, cluttered the walls. Reggae and ancient dub, instead of Huey Lewis and the News, pulsed from the speakers. And the rancid-oil smell of potato skins and jalapeño poppers had been replaced by simmering, smoldering curry. For once, I was one-hundred-percent sure that I was going to walk out alive.
Tucked behind the Temescal Plaza on Shattuck and 50th Street, Jamaica Station doesn't look like much from the outside. The run-down storefront is marked with a painted wooden sign and a placard advertising a few specials. During the day, the restaurant stands empty, its dark walls and curtained windows keeping the room dim, if not gloomy. On a Friday night, though, most of the tables fill up with neighborhood folks, and the lively conversation around the bar is carried out in a thick patois that's impossible to eavesdrop on.
"Now, you realize that everyone here is on island time," warned one dining companion, whose mother hails from Antigua, as we sat down. "You're not going to get your food quickly." Island time translated to about twenty minutes until drinks came, another twenty before appetizers arrived, and a good half hour in between appetizers and entrées. After dinner we waited another half hour before going up to the bar to ask for our check. The chef would come out to the bar for a while to greet some of the patrons, then stroll back to the kitchen. The waiters weren't indifferent or hostile -- quite the opposite. They just moved at a comfortable pace.
Diners who prefer snap-of-the-fingers service should either order takeout or knock back a couple of beers and relax. I skipped beer in favor of Ting, a drink I haven't tasted since my college days in St. Paul. The Jamaican grapefruit soft drink became such an institution in Minneapolis cafes that hipsters started sporting Ting T-shirts and a Ting banner even appeared at Twin Cities Gay Pride parades. Jamaica Station also carries Ting's sister beverages, a kicky but not-too-sweet ginger beer and Jamaican Cola Champagne, whose flavor resembles that of old-fashioned red cream soda.
All of the appetizers on the tiny menu come with the entrées, except for a soup of the day. If you want to start the meal off with something small, walk up to the bar and look in the heated glass case to see which patties look fresh. Patties (pronounced "pah-tees") are savory turnovers, the Jamaican equivalent of empanadas. On my first visit a flaky vegetable patty was stuffed with moist, heavily spiced mashed potatoes; on the second visit it was so old that it was inedible. However, the beef patty, a spicy paste of ground beef tucked into a pocket of curried pastry, rocked. During the long lull between patties and entrées, the bartender also sliced up some Velveeta and made sandwiches with cinnamon-raisin bread for our neighboring tables and us.
Each meal comes with a bowl of rice and peas (actually red beans) smelling faintly of allspice, a green salad with thousand island dressing, lightly fried plantains, and a "dumpling." Dense, sweet dough is shaped into perfect rounds the size of billiard balls and fried until a thick golden crust forms.
Like the bland rice and beans, it was a perfect foil for the rich, sometimes spicy, and always exquisite sauces on our entrées. Though simple, Jamaica Station's homey fare is the best Caribbean food I have yet tasted. Despite the size of the menu -- it sports three appetizers, ten entrées, and no desserts -- the restaurant only serves whatever's fresh, so order with a second choice in mind. Unless you're a vegetarian, you're not likely to step away from the table disappointed.
The clincher was the amazing jerk chicken. Most of the jerk preparations I have tried have concentrated on spices -- allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon ground into a sweet, dark-brown paste. Here, herbs and a splash of vinegar took over. Flecks of ginger, scallions, and chiles were visible on its skin, and the marinade throbbed with a steady heat. Cutting the chicken into smaller pieces allowed the flavor to penetrate to the bone as the meat stewed and kept the white and dark sections equally moist.
The goat curry was equally good. Curry -- the South Asian turmeric-cumin-coriander variety -- came to the Caribbean with the Indians that the British brought to Trinidad to work in the cane fields once Afro-Caribbean slaves had secured their freedom. Slowly, Indian spices spread northward across the islands. A rich, thick curry sauce masked the musky mutton notes of the meaty chunks of goat. A less unctuous chicken curry had been braised in a lighter spice mix, gold rather than burnt umber and more delicate in flavor.
Like the other braised meats we tried, every iota of toughness had been stewed out of the chicken and goat. I picked the tender meat off an oxtail with my fingers. The cooks had prepared the oxtail very simply, letting its natural charms dominate: It seemed as if all the flavor in the cow had concentrated in its tail meat. During the long braising, the marrow had melted out of the bones and enriched the dark brown reduction that coated the oxtail.
We expected a vinegary escabeche preparation for the fish "excovich." Instead, a whole deep-fried trout was graced with a sweet tomato and onion ragout that had been sautéed in annatto oil for so long that the vegetables melted together. Chile peppers sizzled away beneath the sweetness.
Jamaica Station serves ackee and salt fish, a dish that was impossible to find in the United States until recently. In July 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration finally allowed ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, to be imported. Ackee resembles a golden avocado. It can be eaten raw or cooked, but the fruit must be completely ripe. Unripe fruits contain a potent toxin that causes something called "Jamaican vomiting sickness," which can be fatal. The FDA only permits canned ackee to enter the country, and tests to ensure that no underripe fruits make it through the canning process.
Don't let that deter you. On a danger scale from table salt to blowfish liver, canned ackee rates higher than saltine crackers, sure, but lower than raw oysters. In texture and taste it resembles eggs scrambled with avocado and butter. Much like a brandade, the fruit's custardy, rich flesh merged with the briny salt cod it was sautéed with.
Exiting, we weaved around the chef and his tiny son tossing a basketball back and forth next to the entrance. The four-year-old yelled excitedly every time his dad caught the ball he had thrown. All sports bars should be so fun.
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