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Restaurant Review : Making Some Noise at Creeque Alley

October 14, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even when it's not packed five people deep at the bar, Creeque Alley is loud. The awning says bar and grill, but the menu says "bar & ball": Even on a quieter weeknight, multiple video monitors are apt to be broadcasting two or more ballgames, each with the volume cranked. Other times, there are muted prerecorded basketball games or Bill Cosby shows with Kool and the Gang, Prince, Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder blasting from speakers.

Creeque Alley is also dark, although there's just enough light to see the place is pretty great looking: If you didn't know you were on Melrose Avenue, just a few paces west from its sister establishment, Georgia, you might think you'd found a primo back-alley haunt under huge shade trees not far from the town creek. The ceiling is all beams and lath, like a shade arbor or walls waiting for plaster. Windows and the bar are snugly shuttered. What light there is comes through slim gashes in clever sheet-iron wall sconces. There are also candles in quaintly hewn tin-can lanterns: If you hold them right, you can read your menu line-by-line with a beam of light rivaling the intensity of a near-dead flashlight.

In the light of day, the menu, a single stiff laminated sheet, shows a dreadlocked, grinning figure playing football, hockey, soccer, basketball, records and the electric guitar. There is a handful each of appetizers, entrees, sandwiches and eight specialty drinks such as Jamaicanmecrazy (two kinds of rum, two kinds of liqueur, fresh juices, crushed ice), and the $15 Be Scatter and Vanish (light and dark rums, vodka, gin, tequila, triple sec and fruit juice served with flaming "151 rum" over ice).

With or without alcohol, the media bombardment and darkness challenge one not to be scattered and vanish. The food is what keeps us in our booth: Each dish seems better than the last. Fried calamari might not be the crunchiest, but it's well-seasoned, chewy, addictive. Beer-battered shrimp are crisper and even more flavorful, although the fruit-spiked tartar sauce tastes oddly like strawberry ice cream.

*

Jamaican patties, plump, golden turnovers, come with one of two fillings: a hot, sweet, powerfully smoky bean, or a curried, rich, volatile beef. Both are so good, you'll keep eating them and trying to staunch the chile heat with anything on the table--although if you reach for the heady house-made ginger beer, you're truly fighting fire with fire. Don't turn to that scoop of cucumber relish, either--it's hotter than the patties!

Crab cake salad, with two of the teeniest crab cakes ever, is the least interesting item we try. Dumplings in a rich, peppery chicken dumpling soup, however, are dreamy: torpedo-shaped paragons of pleasurable gumminess, they taste like the thickest possible egg noodle. And the only reason not to order jerk chicken wings is that you might want the entree-portion instead. On the other hand, these wings, which are marinated in jerk spices and served unsauced, are subtly, increasingly hot, with a compelling scorch and stickiness--in other words, the perfect drinking food.

Jerk spices also add punch to the house-ground "back alley" burger, which comes with excellent thin, crispy french fries.

There are two good stewed chicken entrees, both cooked until the meat melts right off the bone: the Port-A-Prince, a light-handed, not very exciting curry, and the richer, sweeter brown-stewed chicken Negril. These and all entrees come with rice, dull fried plantains and buttery chayote squash. Don't miss the smothered pork chops: Who remembered that long-cooked meat, rice and gravy could be so wonderful?

In addition to these rich, gravied dishes, there's a mammoth slab of grilled-rare ahi tuna with a refreshing red pepper and onion sauce.

As for dessert, Creeque Alley has but one--allegedly. Our waitress assured us the warm chocolate cake is moist, rich, divine, but the kitchen is invariably out of it.

Service is friendly, but often lax. With good night vision, you'll spy a tiny note on the menu that says a 15% gratuity is automatically added to the bill, but this is confusing: Some waiters do add the tip, some don't. . . .

* Creeque Alley, 7302 Melrose Ave. (213) 937-1416. Open seven nights for dinner, Sunday for brunch. Full bar. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $28 - $48.

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