How's this for synchronicity, Carl Jung fans: I'm driving down Broadway in SoPo (a.k.a. South Phoenix), my windows open and my system blasting the title song of Damian Marley's brilliant CD Welcome to Jamrock. My head's in the clouds, and I'm lost. Lost in some daydream based on the end of the flick Ali G Indahouse, where Ali is sent to Jamaica as the British ambassador to smoke spliffs all day in his white pith helmet while being waited on by an assembly of buxom island babes. With me in the Ali G role, of course.
That's when I spy out of the corner of my cornea, in the midst of a desolate sprawl, a red, green and yellow sign over the entrance to a tiny eatery that reads Irie Jamaican Restaurant; Irie (pronounced "Eye-ree") being Jamaican slang for "cool," claimed by some sources to be short for "I Rastafari, I Ethiopian," or "I Rule I Eternally."
Naturally, I had to stop. I don't know what I expected. But I certainly didn't expect to find, in these humble premises, one of the best cooks in the county. That would be Ms. Eulet King, hailing from Portland Parish, Jamaica, mon. Her last name is representative of her Valleywide sovereignty over all other dispensers of Caribbean cuisine.
Open just 10 months, her business buzzes from morning 'til night with activity, cars often clogging her little lot, and her grill out back forever overflowing with smoke as she fires up endless batches of spicy jerk chicken for her customers. Past a metal door that clangs like a gunshot each time it closes back on itself, there's a worn, cafe-like interior with literally four tables, a counter in the back, and a tacked-up bedsheet blocking the view of the kitchen through a doorless passage.
Pics of Bob Marley are posted about, and the black, green and gold flag of Marley's homeland is spread over one patch of bare wall. A stereo set on a low table in the storage room beside this main one cranks out the reggae, and a fetching server-gal banters with her male customers.
"You're lookin' really cute today," says one dreadlocked fella in a gray jumpsuit as he awaits his jerk to go.
"I'm supposed to look cute, I'm the waitress, aren't I?" she shoots back, to the amusement of all present, including him.
That jerk chicken is worth the wait, the "jerk" in question not being the horndog in the dreads, but rather the dry-rub blend of spices such as allspice, Scotch bonnet peppers, cloves, cinnamon and thyme that makes this Jamaican barbecue style tingle the lining of your oral orifice as well as your olfactory receptors. King's jerk is rather mild by comparison to those I've had before; still, it's no less mouth-watering, and the clucker muscle on the combo of legs, thigh, and/or breast brought to you is juicy and most gratifying.
Sides usually include exceptional red beans and rice, topped with a candied plantain or two, and a small pile of steamed cabbage and carrots, sweet and savory, with a hint of allspice and coconut milk. By themselves, those plantains are reason enough to venture to Broadway, so soft, warm, sweet and filling they are. The same goes for the "johnnycakes," dense, golden lumps of fried dough that pair so well with any of the entrees, or by themselves, washed down with a glass of lemonade or a bottle of ginger beer.
I can most assuredly avow that I'd eat just about anything King chose to prepare for me, and I have yet to satiate my desire for such plates of hers as curried goat, oxtails, red snapper, and the ackee and salt fish, Jamaica's national dish. Ackee is a yellowish-red fruit, native to West Africa, which interestingly was first transported to the Caribbean isles by none other than Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, thus garnering it the scientific name of Blighia sapida. Fried up with pieces of salt cod, the ackee innards resemble bits of egg, with the texture of firm tofu and a similar sort of taste. Mixed with the heavily salted cod, it's pure Jamaican comfort food, and will leave you more content than reggae star Beenie Man with a $100 bag of skunk.
The oxtail and the curried goat were splendid, the former coming in a thick brown gravy, with fatty beef that slid off the tailbone as soon as you looked at it hard. And the curried goat was the best, its gaminess so hidden by the greenish-yellow sauce that it was more like a very bony, very tender cross between beef and lamb than anything else. The "brown stew fish," or red snapper -- highly seasoned, pan fried and served whole -- was so herbalicious that I was ready to suck the eyeballs right out of the carcass' head. The "brown stew chicken" was nothing like its piscatory colleague, despite the kindred nom de menu. This fricasseed fowl in its hearty, brown gravy engrossed me to such an extent, I've been considering buying a condo in South Phoenix, I kid you not.
We're talking about Jamaican soul food here, on a par with the Afro-American kind that Mrs. White's and Stacy's do so well. Its authenticity declares itself in every morsel carried to your mouth, and that's no doubt why King's planning a move to more commodious quarters in April of this year. She'll need to with all the business she has now, and all the business she's sure to have as word spreads of this Jamaican jewel in the rough. With any luck, maybe one day Irie'll be able to offer Red Stripe in addition to the Jamaican soda pops, fruit juices and energy drinks it does now.
Lately there have been a number of grub outlets, usually helmed by loafer-wearing, briefcase-bearing types aiming to do Caribbean cuisine or some hybrid of ethnic and "American" victuals, mucking up a good thing in the name of marketing, usually to the pasty ladies-who-lunch crowd. But one jaunt to Jamrock -- slang for Jamaica itself, in the guise of Irie Jamaican Restaurant -- and your tongue will know those other eateries for the fakers they are.
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