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Favorable Trade Winds

Whether JA Grill to the south or Jamaica Hut to the north, island flavors are prevailing conditions.

March 06, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's irie, mon.

Pronounce that EYE-ree. It's an expression used on the island of Jamaica to connote OK, first class or (in the Bill and Ted sense) excellent.

I learned this firsthand at JA Grill, a winsome Jamaican cafe in San Clemente where the menu includes a "chat Jamaican" segment on the back page. Example: A lang time mi a wait pon di food. (The food is taking forever.)

I've also been frequenting another Jamaican restaurant, Jamaica Hut in Long Beach. This is a seat-of-the-pants storefront restaurant where the chef, a powerful but soft-spoken fellow named Steve Stewart, prepares a limited repertoire of his native dishes.

Both restaurants serve Jamaican cuisine, of course--simple, piquant fare based on chicken, goat, rice, peas, plantains and a few green vegetables. Meats are generally stewed or jerked, the latter rubbed with spices and finished on a grill. Fish are either steamed and smothered in green peppers, onions and tomatoes or escovietched (the word comes from the Spanish escabeche): fried and then doused with a spicy vinegar sauce.

JA Grill, easily the quirkier of the two restaurants, is modest and cozy. Dreadlock-coiffed chef Earl Kenlock personally painted the cafe walls in a lively tropical mural of palm trees, goats and rolling hills. There is also a small grove of faux banana trees--colorful things put together from green and yellow cloth.

This isn't fast food. The only things not cooked to order are patties, which are best described as Pop Tarts gone Caribbean. These flat, flaky pies enclose mushy, spicy chicken, beef or mashed pea fillings in a mustard-yellow crust (the color due to annato seed in the dough). Patties are not exactly serious food, but they're fun to nibble on. The beef version is like Swanson's beef pot pie with an attitude.

Entrees include callaloo, a sauteed dish of greens, and this slightly overcooked spinach version is loaded with ginger, allspice and onions. Ackee and salt fish, Jamaica's national dish, is based on a vegetable with a custard-like texture, mixed with little bits of salted mackerel. It is best eaten with plain steamed rice.

One of my favorite Jamaican dishes is oxtail. JA Grill's version is a rich, meaty stew with carrots and potatoes in it. Kenlock's classic jerk chicken is rather dry, but some knowledgeable people swear by this style of jerk: whole pieces of chicken, skin on, rubbed with ginger, allspice and no shortage of black pepper and thoroughly grilled.

There are several other nice choices: a mild mutton curry, a richly sauced chicken fricassee and stir-fried beef. All dishes are prepared mild unless you request them spicy, in which case he adds some habanero chile sauce and also brings the bottle to the table, so you can control your own destiny.

Most dishes include a rice and kidney bean pilaf, plus a simple green salad. But remember--when you order a main dish, be prepared to wait a lang time pon di food.

The desserts are simple but delicious. There are just two, and both are ice creams: a creamy rum raisin and an eccentric one consisting of vanilla ice cream and Grape-Nuts (yes, the cereal). To drink, there is Ting (a refreshing grapefruit soda) and Jamaican ginger beer (ginger ale with a wicked bite).

JA Grill is moderately priced. Patties, $2.50; dinners, $7.50-$13.

*

The whitewashed Jamaica Hut is a brighter, more spacious place than JA Grill. It has a concrete floor, hardwood chairs and tables adorned with tiny baskets full of plastic fruit. Reggae music plays constantly on the sound system.

The menu is inviting, but certain dishes on it are rarely available except by advance notice, such as Stephanie's fried chicken, salt fish with dumpling and green banana, and brown stew beef. The kitchen does offer curry chicken, curry goat and oxtails most days, served with rice and peas, potato salad and a pile of fried plantains. It makes for a filling plate--and what's more, an inexpensive one. Dishes average $2 less than at JA Grill.

The star of the show has to be the curry goat, despite the fact that it's extravagantly salty. Goat is gamier, bonier and more gelatinous than lamb, although the flavors are quite similar. Stewart's goat curry is dominated by ginger and extremely tender, to the point that the meat falls from the bone when prodded with a fork.

Jamaica Hut's jerk chicken employs Cornish game hen instead of chicken, and the amount of meat served might leave a hungry person wanting. The meat tastes of garlic, pepper and sweet spices, and the just-right degree of doneness demonstrates that the chef is clearly an experienced grill man.

Oxtails are stewed with carrot and lima beans, and the beans impart a heaviness that recalls the classic bean stews of France and Spain. On weekends, there is fresh lake perch, available either escovietched or (better yet) steamed whole in a nage of yellow pepper, onion, tomato and spices.

The beef pattie here, incidentally, is terrific. It's a warm, crusty pocket that fairly oozes rivulets of spicy meat.

Jamaica Hut is inexpensive. Dinners, $3.95-$7.50.

BE THERE

* JA Grill, 129 Del Mar, San Clemente. (714)492-2500. 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. All major cards.

* Jamaica Hut, 2943 E. Broadway, Long Beach. (310) 439-4733. Noon-9 p.m. Tues.-Thur. and Sun., noon-midnight Fri. and Sat. Cash only.

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