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Dessert is the part of the ethnic meal that Americans usually have the most trouble adjusting to. Whether it's Japanese red bean ice cream or rosewater-scented Middle Eastern pastries, non-Western goodies aim at a sweet tooth most Westerners don't possess. However, I believe the kheer pista, a vibrant rice pudding gilded with saffron and pistachios, has universal appeal. But ras malai, homemade cottage cheese balls accented with rosewater and floating in a puddle of sweetened condensed milk, is more an acquired taste. The same holds true for the homemade Indian ice cream, which, be warned, doesn't have the taste or texture of anything you'll find at Baskin-Robbins.
Bombay Palace deserves to thrive. The food is first-rate, the prices are reasonable, and the portions are ample. Let's hope west-siders, never known for their adventurous palates, have the courage to give it a try.
Jamaica Miah Cafe, 2700 West Baseline (northeast corner of Baseline and 48th Street), Tempe, 453-0023. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
If you've ever spent time in a developing nation, a visit to this small, funky storefront is sure to bring back memories.
Perhaps it's the dreadlocked proprietor's sense of time. He seems to have plenty of it, and expects you to have it, too. You don't need a watch to keep track of the dishes coming out of this "what's your hurry, mon?" kitchen--a sundial will do. And remember that opening and closing times are more a suggestion than an actual guide to the hours of operation.
Perhaps it's the menu, which bears little relation to what is actually in stock. The marker board, for instance, always lists callaloo, a spinachlike vegetable that's the basis for a stew. But I've never hit a time when it was available. On several occasions, I tried to order ackee and salt cod, the national dish. No luck there, either.
(Still, I wasn't too distressed. That's because ackee, a tropical fruit of West African origin, is poisonous in its immature state. How many other countries have national dishes that are potentially lethal?)
Perhaps it's the home-country clientele, who spend time here talking, watching reggae videos and sipping Jamaican soft drinks like Ting, a grapefruit soda, and Kola "champagne."
And perhaps it's the telephone system. For some inexplicable reason, Jamaica Miah Cafe doesn't take calls blocked to avoid Caller ID. A restaurant that restricts incoming phone calls? Why not go all the way and get an unlisted number? I'm still scratching my head.
Or perhaps it's the food. I took friends here who'd lived 11 years in the Caribbean. Jamaica Miah's look, rhythm and food, they pronounced, were "the real thing."
Is the real thing for everybody? That depends.
The small menu is built around fish and chicken. The only nibbles are Jamaican patties, flaky turnovers stuffed with beef, chicken or veggies.
We had poultry in all its forms. Curry chicken is lovely, done up in a rich sauce that's more subtle than spicy. As a treat, the proprietor ladled on some "dumplings," thick, heavy, bready balls that are perfect for curry-dipping.
Brown stew chicken, skillet-seared and coated with innocuous spices, isn't quite as interesting. Jerked chicken is a better option, grilled up crisp and teamed with red beans and rice topped with seasoned potatoes.
Fish dishes feature red snapper. After repeated requests, I prevailed on the proprietor to make me up fish tea, a Caribbean broth generally flavored with green bananas and veggies. This homespun version had no bananas, but it was well-stocked with carrot, potato and dumplings, along with unfilleted morsels of fish. It's very different and very tasty.
The whole snapper, crusted with mild island spices and grilled, is a tribute to simplicity. Crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, it's a basic dish that's basically satisfying.
Two homemade desserts end the meal on a sweet note. Chocolate rum cake is heavy and moist. So is the coconut pineapple upside-down cake, with its spoon-lickin' layer of caramelized sugar on the bottom.
Jamaica Miah Cafe is no gastronomic palace, and dining here requires a certain attitude adjustment. But it's fun, cheap and out of the ordinary. How many places in this town can you say that about?
Tandoori chicken (half)
Jamaica Miah Cafe: