If you're jonesing for oxtail, head to Grant Hill's Island Spice. Just call first to make sure they have it.
Six days a week, the Jamaican restaurant closes at 8 p.m., around the time most restaurants are just starting to check names on their reservation list. So when we arrived a little after 6 p.m. on a Saturday and announced we'd be a party of at least five, the restaurant's cook came to our table to warn us he was running out of food. Indeed, the brave soul among us who agreed to try the oxtail was told there was no more. The steamed fish, too, was out; there were no more dumplings or boiled bananas; and we watched while a take-out customer bought the last meat patty (from what I've read, it's the Jamaican version of an Indian samosa and quite tasty).
Lesson learned: Go to Island Spice for breakfast, lunch or an early dinner. Or, like the dozen or so folks who stopped by to pick up take-out orders while we were eating, call ahead to see what's available. There's a menu on the website.
Back to the oxtail. The local food blog mmm-yoso raves about Island Spice's oxtail; you can, in fact, see a photo of the dish if you go to mmm-yoso.typepad.com and enter "Island Spice" in the search box. Despite the slight ick factor for those of us who've never munched on an ox's tail, obviously it's a popular dish since the Jamaican-restaurant staple was gone by 6 p.m.
Chicken, on the other hand, was no problem. We got plates of jerk chicken, barbecued chicken and curry chicken (there's also goat with curry, another item the mmm-yoso blog digs). Though the steamed fish entrée wasn't available, oddly the fish in brown sauce was. Entrées come in small or large portions (aka, huge or huger) with sides of red beans and rice, fried plantains and a big scoop of mixed vegetables comprising cabbage, a pea-like bean, carrots, lima beans and a slightly bitter spinach-type green called callaloo. While the veggie princess at the table found the vegetables so-so, the rest of us thought they were rather tasty. From our table, we could see the cook stirring up a big kettle of the vegetable mix to meet the constant stream of take-out customers.
The red beans and rice were a little on the bland side, but because the dishes are all about the sauce and the large potions inevitably overlap on the plate, the starchy beans and rice sopped up the extra sauce. Warning to wary meat eaters: all meat items come bone-in, so if you don't want to be reminded that your meal once relied on skeletal support, this might not be the place for you.
In order of saucy goodness, the rich, tangy barbeque sauce was the winner. The brown sauce slathered on the fish was light and sweet but was forced to battle with a slightly fishy-tasting fish. The jerk chicken was mildly spicy and didn't disappoint. The curry wasn't the least bit spicy-no complaints here-but could have been more liberally applied.
The overall winner, though, were the fried plantains. "Fried" might not be the right word since it suggests a crispy, too often greasy, coating. These plantains were dipped au natural in hot oil just to the point where the outside was slightly browned and the inside was soft and cooked through. The process takes away some of the sweetness, resulting in a tangy treat. On a second trip back to Island Spice, they were out of the fried plantains and made up a fresh batch while I waited that were even better than those on my first visit.
For dessert, we split a piece of homemade rum cake. It was a little on the dry side, more bread-like than cake-like and not too sweet. Elsewhere, it would have been served with some kind of rum sauce topping, but we were happy enough with its simplicity. We supplemented it with a pack of coconut cookies from the tiny food store in a side corner of the restaurant where you can pick up various Jamaican imports.
The restaurant doesn't have a liquor license, so you have to make do with a large selection of sodas (including Cactus Cooler) and juices. If you're a fan of ginger ale, try the Goya Jamaican-style ginger beer. For the uninitiated, drink with caution and don't breathe on your first sip. If you're not up to the challenge, there are milder versions.
The cozy eatery looks like it was plucked off a Jamaican street, palm trees and all, and dropped into a part of town that's still trying to figure out whether it's commercial, residential or industrial. Service is friendly, if a little too laid back for what you might be used to. When I called in a take-out order, it was obvious the woman who answered the phone wasn't writing anything down. Indeed, when I arrived, my food wasn't ready, though she did remember I had called and I only had to wait a few minutes-but two appetizers were left off the order. Fortunately, I did get the fresh-made fried plantains.
Island Spice is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Prices range from $1 sides to $10 entrées.