Island Punch

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Once during a benefit event, I volunteered to help some Jamaican ladies cook recipes native to their Caribbean homeland. When I arrived at the big kitchen that was their operations center, I was surprised to find two of them busy mincing peppers, their hands swathed in plastic gloves.

Explained one in the lilting accent of Jamaica: "Otherwise, dearie, the juice burns your fingers."

They were dicing Scotch bonnet chili peppers, thumb-size little lanterns that are the fruit of one of the world's hottest varieties of the pepper plant. Jamaican natives proudly use the fiery ferocity of the Scotch bonnet to create a wealth of spicy dishes. Diners unaccustomed to such culinary heat eat at their own risk. Of course, that's half the fun, now, isn't it?

At some Jamaican restaurants, the menu warns the naive who may not have experienced the lash of the Scotch bonnet, saying something like "such-and-such a dish contains extremely spicy ingredients," probably at the behest of some worthless lawyer. The world would be a much better place with fewer lawyers, and more Scotch bonnets.

My brain had involuntarily called up its storehouse of trivia about the Scotch bonnet as I sat inside the Jerk Hut, a teensy restaurant near the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. I had ordered its signature appetizer, innocuously named "pepper shrimp," ($3.75), but as soon as I picked one of the crustaceans up, the tips of my fingers reacted as if to a four-alarm blaze.

The food was practically radioactive with capsaicin, the chemical compound that endows some peppers with their spicy heat (and also doubles as a decongestant). Still, allowing curiosity to overcome caution, I carefully peeled each of five shrimp, and ate them.

The effect? Say you were attending a cocktail party at the Kennedy Space Center, and someone offered a champagne glass seething with, ooh, something so potent its fumes seemed to singe your hair, but maybe in a sudden lapse of good judgment, you drank it, anyway, and it turned out to be supercooled liquid oxygen used to ignite the rockets that propel the Space Shuttle away from Earth.

Or, if you were dining al fresco near an active volcano, and when you went to powder your nose, a burning coal landed in your rice, and mistaking it for a black bean, you ate it accidentally.

Anyway, if you go to the Jerk Hut, order a big glass of water with the food.

Only recently relocated in a building that was formerly a fast food restaurant, the Jerk Hut has made some modifications in accord with the island lifestyle. The black, yellow and green Jamaican flag flutters outside, and inside there are fake banana trees, simple booths and tables, and sayings that reflect the island lifestyle, such as: "Di darkest part a di night is when Day soon light," or, "You can't plant corn and reap peas."

The menu was surprisingly complex for such a small restaurant, listing Jamaican favorites like brown stew chicken (lunch $6.50, dinner $6.95), oxtail stew ($6.95 lunch, $7.25 dinner) and "dreaddie Veggie" plates ($2.50-$6.50 each), along with various salads, soups, lunchtime specials, extra large dishes, dishes with extra meat and combination plates.

The restaurant also offers catering and take-out, is testing a new drive-through window, and boasts a swell Web page, complete with music, at Owner Andrew Ashmeade, who created the Web site, has operated the restaurant for eight years.

Once we finished the pepper shrimp, the rest of the fare was relatively tame, and you can also specify if you want mild, medium or very spicy food.

"The pepper shrimp is really our hottest dish," Ashmeade told me later.

Overflowing a fresh white bun was the jerk chicken sandwich ($4.25), a hefty pile of boned, marinated and grilled chicken, piled with lettuce and tomato; it was accompanied by a container of owner Ashmeade's Original Redd Sauce, hearty and flavorful, but not flammable like the shrimp.

Another Jamaican specialty was curried goat ($6.50 lunch, $7.25 dinner), big chunks of braised meat, mingled with potatoes and drenched in a thick, oily gravy. It was sided with a drift of white rice pocked with peas that look like black beans. We couldn't resist the Cool Runnings fruit punch ($2.50), nor skip the best dessert, a memorably dark and moist rum cake ($2 a slice) that was even excellent au naturel. (Au naturel, allow me to clarify, doesn't mean I was nude while eating it — the cake lacked frosting. Just so you know ...)

But you don't have to dine in Tampa to get fine Jamaican food: St. Pete is lucky to have another primo Jamaican restaurant, called the Taste of the Island, located in a storefront of the Lakeview Shopping Center. The restaurant's interior has a humble, country feel to it, even though it occupies a busy, urbanized section of the city. Its mien is simple and modest, with bare tables and booths set apart from a counter area on the other side, TV and reggae music blaring.

"We treat it like a family restaurant," explained its owner, Yvonne Thompson, who has operated Taste of the Island for the past 10 years.

We tried conch fritters ($1.50), heavy homemade breading spliced with the meat of the conch — so filling that a light eater might be satisfied with just that one dish, washed down with a fizzy, Jamaican ginger beer.

But of course we wanted to try the entrees. I started with brown stew chicken (small $5.50, large $7.50) and jerk chicken ($5.50 small, $7.50 large). The former entailed two fat pieces of stewed chicken, satisfyingly gooey in its own dark brown gravy; the latter included chunks of marinated chicken, grilled and crusty on the outside, moist and tender inside, and served with a spicy jerk sauce.

Both arrived with simple salads, white rice and peas, and fried dumplings, circles of bread dough fried to a golden hue like doughnut holes, but not sweet. We found the barbecued ribs ($6.50 lunch, $8.50 dinner) too greasy and needing more spice.

We took our time eating, observing a slow stream of neighborhood customers come and go; some ordering takeout, others sitting at the counter with a plate. It's a friendly little place.

Also on the menu, the Jamaican national dish, ackee and saltfish dinner ($6 lunch, $9 dinner). Ackee is a bright red tropical fruit that originated in Africa, and the fish is cod, cured in salt, the boiled and combined with sauteed onion, bell pepper and seasonings.

The food was so filling it was hard to think about dessert; but lined up neatly in a glass case were, oh, eight or nine different cakes, ($1.50 per slice) — pineapple, lemon, chocolate, strawberry, pecan, red velvet, pineapple, carrot and fruit cake, similar to a rum cake ($3 per slice). I was intrigued by all the different flavors, so we tried lemon and pineapple. Both pieces were finely textured and carried a respectable flavor under thin white frostings. They weren't as good as they could have been because they'd slightly dried out from sitting too long.

Still, should you want a change of pace, or if you dare to test yourself against the Scotch bonnet's scorch, do give these Jamaican restaurants a try. Hey, mon, it's so hot, it's cool.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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