One menu item at restaurants tends to bore me to tears: chicken. Why order something you can cook a hundred ways yourself?
I was delighted to find chicken salvation in a small, semi-obscure restaurant on the southeast side. Tucked into the corner of Ace Plaza (at South Academy Boulevard and Hancock Avenue) sits the tidy, 15-seat Jamaican Flavor.
Jamaican-born Hugh Davis, who's been cooking since he was 9 years old, and co-owner Natasha Williams serve traditional, home-style dishes that combine Spanish, African, English, East Indian and Chinese influences.
Jamaican Flavor's jerk chicken ($8), probably the most commonly known Jamaican dish, is anything but common. After a marinade of allspice, garlic, nutmeg and scotch bonnet peppers, the chicken meets the grill. When my guest asked for "spicy," Davis offered a quick taste of his sauce to make sure she could handle it. She could.
Now, it's easy to make food spicy; it's quite another to offer a depth of flavor. But the tear-jerking, nose-dripping heat from the sauce didn't overshadow the smokiness of the meat. By contrast, my stewed curry chicken ($6.50), with coconut milk and spices, was sweetly mild and aromatic. The rustic, fall-off-the-bone meat in a creamy yellow sauce woke my taste buds. I found myself ramming my fork into the marrow and sucking on the bones to get every drop of flavor.
(By the way, take-out proved a good idea. This isn't fork-and-knife dining; you will get your fingers dirty, and dealing with the ruggedly chopped chicken bones requires care.)
Each meal comes with Jamaican rice and peas, pigeon or kidney beans, depending on the week. Each is hearty, with coconut milk and seasonings. Sweet, stir-fried cabbage with carrots rounded out our meals.
The English-inspired patties ($2.50) "Hot Pocket-type" flaky pastry filled with a choice of a creamy ground beef mixture or a spicy or mild shredded chicken curry, baked golden brown were perfect for my daughter's small hands and extremely tasty.
The oxtail ($8.50), roasted and pressure-cooked to break down the fibers, delivered the right balance of tender meat and fat. I shouldn't have to tell you there's great flavor in fat.
My only stutter-step came with what is considered Jamaica's national dish: ackee (a common Jamaican vegetable) and salted cod ($10). Davis had warned he couldn't describe it, offering only, "You have to try it." The rehydrated cod, sauted with ackee, tomatoes, onions and spices, was salty and a tad oily for my taste. When I told Davis I found it "interesting," he laughed.
Thanks to local resorts that recruit Caribbean workers, Davis and Williams aren't short on customers looking for a taste of home.
I've been a sucker for a Jamaican accent since a cruise six years ago, when a charming customs agent complimented me on my figure. (I was nearly six months pregnant at the time.) I now consider myself charmed by the food, too.
Travelers who enjoy eating authentically will do well to check out Jamaican Flavor. Bear in mind, as these complex dishes are made to order, Davis suggests calling ahead. But even if you are stuck waiting, remember: Your patience will be amply rewarded.
3016 S. Academy Blvd., 391-0142
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sundays.
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