Scotch bonnet bliss 

It'd be easy to dismiss all Jamaican food as jerk, curry and plantains set to a Bob Marley soundtrack, Red Stripe in-hand, "Hey Mon!" and all that. And yes, you'll find all except a thick Patois at this Caribbean replacement for the long-standing Tex-Mex landmark, El Tesoro, which shuttered earlier this summer.

At the brightly re-painted Spice Island Grill, you'll also find a lot more cultural and culinary depth, ranging from Ital (the strict Rastafari diet) tributes like a range of tofu entrées to Jamaica's national dish ($12.99), a salty, herby scramble of tomatoes, onions, salted cod and Ackee fruit, an oddly but not unpleasantly egg-y (at least, here) tasting cousin to lychee fruit.

Co-owner Claudette Hutchinson comes from a large Jamaican family of cooks; as such, her menu is a compilation of favorite recipes from aunts and uncles, one of whom came from New York to lead her kitchen. Her brother is the GM, and his wife brings a brief stint of study at the Culinary Institute of America to her pastry chef duties (she also waits tables). Having formerly run a Jamaican mobile concession truck with her husband Glen, Claudette, recently retired from an Air Force career, isn't new to food service either.

Spice Island as a collaborative effort blends its own seasonings, concocts its own sauces, bakes everything from scratch and otherwise purveys healthier options like Denver's Oogavé natural sodas. The clear ginger ale ($2.50) in particular offers a great complementary bite to standout selections like the grilled jerk chicken ($7.99/$11.99), probably the finest rendition I've tried anywhere. Super-moist and covered in a thick spice paste, it's served with a fantastic zesty house jerk sauce on the side, for good reason. Fermented scotch bonnet peppers gift that quite a heat with a mild vinegar tang. (Smartly, they sell it by the bottle.)

The sauce appears often on the menu, making a surprising winner out of crispy tofu fries ($6.50) and two new-to-me items I tried with the requisite plantains on a sampler platter ($10.99). The first: a fluffy, hushpuppy-like fried codfish ball (think: a savory beignet de mer). The second: "Jamaican Patties" of fine-chopped curried chicken (or beef) on a thin flatbread, like a mini panini. (I don't think you are supposed to dunk these in the sauce, but it works.)

I unknowingly should have saved some sauce for the jerk shrimp salad ($11.95), whose peel-and-eats had a decent caking of spice, unfortunately lost once messily peeled, leaving fairly bland shrimp atop shredded cabbage with a bit of underlying greens.

That being the only major stumble, the chewy curried goat ($9.99/$14.99) pleases with a rosemary-dominant herb sauce, though I would recommend pulling out the largest sprigs before serving to avoid the "I think I just swallowed a toothpick" sensation. The extra-tender beef oxtail stew (same price) clearly receives a lengthy cook time, and once pulled from the large bones, its meat tastes like a mature pot roast, again more herby than spicy, a good option for sensitive palates.

Side dishes ($2 to $4, included in some plates), from creamy mashed potatoes to basic mac-n-cheese, sautéed veggies and a sweet, nutmeg-forward cornbread, are uniformly decent. Speaking for desserts, a four-layer coconut cake ($5.50) with coconut buttercream and Malibu coconut rum in the coconut crème layer blew us away.

Back to convention, everything indeed be pretty irie at Spice Island, where a rich culinary culture is on delightful display.

— matthew@csindy.com


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