A few weeks ago I asked Leadfoot Louis, my Jamaican taxi-driver friend and guide to island things, where he went for the cornmeal porridge he slurps up as we slalom through morning traffic. He suggested a place run by a former colleague turned food-cart owner turned restaurateur. As we headed off to deep Flatbush, I watched the greens in the veggie stands change from collards to callaloo. Finally, we pulled up in front of an infinitesimal spot on a street alive with the cacophony and commerce of transplanted Caribbean life. Inside, the reggae fades to the primal underpinning of a heartbeat; even the air feels warmer, lighter. This is Jimbojean Jamaican Restaurant & Bakery, a Fotomat-sized spot with a clientele who arrive in droves to get their tastes of home.
An illuminated menu that suggests the joint was originally a Blimpie now advertises such breakfast delicacies as liver and bananas and callaloo and vegetables. The boiled green bananas were history, but the dinner rush hadn't started, so soon I escaped the cordoned stanchions that regulate the flow of diners. Most of Jimbojean's business is take-out and the dining facilities are minimalist, but those who wish can sup and sip mauby ($2) or sorrel ($3) at one of the six tables. Countrymen give each other silent salutes and subtle nods as they await their turn at the counter that fronts the kitchen.
The menu rounds up many of the usual suspects jerked pork, brown-stewed chicken, oxtails, and several varieties of the escovitched fish I dote on. I was spotted as a ringer the minute the busy cook behind the counter figured out that I didn't know what he meant when he offered gravy with my jerked chicken ($6.50). The chicken was yummy, not the usual mouth-searing stuff, but rather defined by the wonderful "gravy," rich with thyme and the complex nutmegcinnamonblack-pepper flavors of allspice as well as Scotch bonnet blast. The rice and peas that the Jamaicans call coat-of-arms were perfumed with a hint of coconut milk, their sweetness a perfect foil for the chile zap. A salad of iceberg with vinaigrette, and a slice of fried plantain for those used to still more starch, rounded out the heaping plate. I sucked the meat from the bones and washed it down with a well-chilled homemade ginger beer ($3) that ended with a slurry of finely grated ginger. I also ordered take-out an escovitched snapper with extra "gravy" ($8). Enjoying my fish at home, I thought of the dish's transatlantic transformation from the siquisbé or tart marinades of ancient Persia to my favorite Jamaican dish, but only briefly. I was too busy sopping up the sweated onions, julienned carrots, and slivers of allspice-infused chile.
I was soon back, this time for soup red pea, only a medium-sized serving ($3). It proved a creamy mix of red peas heated with just a hint of chile and mined with chunks of potato and carrot and pieces of tender beef. It was so thick I had to strain to get my spoon in. It arrived complete with a gigantic, satisfyingly chewy dumpling, a meal in itself, but also perfect accompaniment for yet more take-out escovitched fish and gravy. This time, there was no history lesson, just the simple delight in the true, true tastes of the island.
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