I’m in the crosswalk between Palmer High School and Dainty’s Jamaican Kitchen with one of the school’s security guards, who tells me the staff loves having the new eatery across the street. We pass another guard, and the first asks him about the jerk fries. Without breaking stride, the other guard blurts out: “7 out of 10.” (Jeez, everyone’s a critic these days.)
Dainty Wheaton moved her business off Fort Carson, where her now-retired husband was stationed and where she ran her Jamaican eatery for seven years. Hearing a few stories she tells me during an interview, I gather she may have been a base mom to soldiers; she was thoughtful to offer items like boneless chicken for troops with limited time to eat, “so they wouldn’t have to fool with the bones.”
She’s been fooling with the bones since age 8, when her mom made her help out at the family’s restaurant in St. Catherine Parish, a lineage place that dated back to her great-grandmother. She would go there straight from school and on weekends, crying and having “no fun.” She recalls using a step stool to reach the kitchen counter, and vowing never to get into the business. But after 20 years in child care she relented, confessing it was “still my passion.”
That’s clear from sip one of her sugary lavender-coconut lemonade, made with syrups but bright in both color and flavor. We’re lucky to catch a special of three-piece, dark-meat brown stew chicken right out of the smoker, saturated with mesquite essence (though true jerk in Jamaica utilizes pimento wood). Wheaton shows me the commercial Jamaican jerk spice blend she uses, a mix of nutmeg, scallions, unspecified “hot peppers,” ground pimento, brown sugar, salt, pepper and thyme. Given some lingering heat, I’ll presume scotch bonnets are the pepper, and some soy sauce and Jamaican browning sauce add tartness to the chicken, thoroughly enjoyable with sappy plantains over rice and kidney beans.
We try the jerk chicken fries, too, and concur with the security guard’s rating, mainly because the fries are pretty run-of-the-mill. But the chicken bits are full of grill flavor and Wheaton squirts a tangy jerk ranch sauce and jerk ketchup with some pineapple zing atop. We also nab a veggie patty that’s imported through New York and something like a savory wheat-flour Pop Tart filled with corn and cabbage; it’s a bit dry and chewy, and a side of hot sauce helps. We take home a slice of sweet potato “pudding” that’s reminiscent of raisin bread, with cinnamon essence and a starchy backbone.
A return visit for take-out — the cute, banana-yellow space only holds a few tables — has us leaving with oxtail and curried goat. The oxtail sports a nice dark bark and a braising has reduced it to soft fatty tenderness. There’s no major spice flavor, just a deep meatiness that’s warming, backed up by meaty-tasting, salty green beans.
The hearty goat’s gamey anda little oily, but underlying rice and kidney beans welcome the runoff and pair perfectly with a tangle of soft stewed cabbage flecked with carrot threads. The portion we receive for $14 feels generous, which is to say I’d like to see the $18 “large” option. And eat it all in a sitting. Again there’s not a ton of spice at play, but enough to place the item in the Caribbean. We’ll have to return for snapper plates, ackee and salt fish if we really want to visit the island.
Wing fans can go ham on eight- to 50-piece baskets with a couple jerk flavors among sauce options. There’s also student specials to capitalize the tiny location.
That’s actually the factor I worry about most for Dainty’s, trading soldiers for students in a time of uncertain schooling scenarios. Others have failed to make a go of the spot, needing wider appeal than the immediate audience provides. But Dainty says she has a following from Fort Carson who’ll support her. And she was excited about branching off-base to new clientele.
Besides, unlike when she was a little girl, she gets a couple days off a week now, even if she fell prey to the family business.