Fork Corners of the Earth

Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe, 5004 South Price, Tempe, 413-0267. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.

You don't need to wait for the 2000 census figures to realize that Phoenix is in the middle of an ethnic explosion. The indications are all around us: The new Chinese center going up near downtown, the battle over Official English and the thriving immigrant press are just three signs.

Is this growing multicultural diversity a good thing? You get arguments on both sides, arguments that don't follow traditional party or ideological lines. One prominent liberal Democrat, for example, has complained that America has "too much E Pluribus and too little Unum." A conservative Republican, meanwhile, approvingly cites FDR's clever dig at the nativist pretensions of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Addressing their convention, the president began his speech with the sly salutation, "My fellow immigrants."

In my narrow corner of the universe, however, there's no debating the pros and cons of multicultural diversity. The verdict is in: You can't have too many ethnic restaurants.

For proof, check out Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe. As far as I'm aware, it's now the Valley's only full-service Caribbean restaurant. (There's also Caribbean Grill, 9719 North Hayden in Scottsdale, a fast-food-style outlet.)

Over the past few years, several places featuring Caribbean specialties have tried unsuccessfully to connect with local diners. Banana Bay in Scottsdale lasted about a year; after about a four-year run, Coconuts Cafe threw in the conch shell a few months ago; and All That Jazz in downtown Phoenix recently scuttled its island menu in favor of Southern soul food.

Does something about Caribbean fare disagree with Valley ethnic-food fans? I don't think so. I'd say, in varying degrees, mediocre eats, indifferent service and high prices played a part in the demise of Likle Montego's predecessors. Happily, none of those factors is at work here.

It's a storefront operation, doing business since December from the massive shopping complex on the northwest corner of Price and Baseline. The room is done up in Jamaica's national colors--black, yellow and green--with some Rastafari red thrown in for brightness. Part of the space is given over to a raised dance floor and DJ booth to accommodate live weekend entertainment. At other times, recorded reggae music spills out of the music system. A few painted palm trees, some artificial plants and a "Red Stripe" sign furnish the rest of the interior design.

The menu is small, but the food is tasty and the prices are certainly right--everything comes with change back from a 10.

Start off munching the irresistible fried plantains, sweet, crunchy and pleasantly oily. The jerked-chicken appetizer (also available as a main dish) brings mildly spiced, fall-off-the-bone poultry, with a honey-mustard dip and French fries. No doubt there are better things to do in this world than nibble fried plantains and jerked chicken, and wash them down with Red Stripe, the wonderful Jamaican national brew, while tapping your feet to a reggae beat. However, at this moment, I can't think of any.

Some folks have a problem with the heat of Jamaican fare. Bite into a scotch bonnet pepper unawares, and you may feel as if you've just swallowed a live hand grenade. However, the kitchen here--perhaps attuned to East Valley sensitivities--keeps the flames way, way down. If you want to light a fire, use the bottled condiments on the table. I found the hot tomato-mango sauce very effective.

Goat is a Jamaican staple, and Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe has the courage to feature it. The meat comes in big cubes, surprisingly tender and not at all gamy. A nonthreatening curry helps bring out all the flavors. Like all the main dishes, this platter comes with a choice of white rice, or the better bet, a blend of rice and red beans, along with some savory boiled cabbage.

When one of my crew ordered the tilapia, an Arizona farm-raised fish, the waitress asked, "With or without the head?" It seems that a customer had flipped out a few weeks earlier when she saw dinner staring back at her. Since then, the staff has been checking customer preferences. No matter which way you look at it, or it looks at you, the tilapia will come gently pan-fried, moist and delicate.

If you're looking for something unusual, come on an evening when the kitchen offers the oxtail special. You get a pile of huge, gnawingly good bones, ringed with meat. The lima bean accompaniment provides a pleasing exotic touch.

Hearty appetites will appreciate the curried chicken, which sports lots of juicy, white meat in a savory curry. The kidney-bean soup, an occasional special, also smothers hunger pangs. It's a meal in a bowl, a rich, skillfully seasoned broth supporting beans, shredded meat and hunks of potato.

Unfortunately, the meal ends with a whimper, not a bang. Instead of tropical sweets, you're offered what-are-they-doing-here, made-elsewhere German chocolate cake, carrot cake and cheesecake. Why not cut up some mango or flame some fried bananas soaked with rum?

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