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You don’t forget your first curried goat. It was years ago, and I was on the Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando’s answer to San Pablo Avenue, looking for a cheap and non-franchised lunch. I wound up at a hole-in-the-wall run by Trinidadians that served goat and roti, a flatbread with South Asian roots. Really good goat. I’ve been looking for its equal ever since.
Happily, I believe I’ve found it at the Caribbean Cove, a small Jamaican eatery upstairs in the Village, at Telegraph and Blake. It’s run by Judith O’Loughlin, who comes from the small island of Nevis (also the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton). O’Loughlin’s curried goat is rich and tender, hot but not painfully so. She uses an imported Jamaican curry powder, less incendiary than South Asian blends.
The Cove has a short menu, but it touches most of the bases of Jamaican cuisine—a palimpsest of cultural influences. The curries (chicken is also available) came in with South Asian contract laborers in the 19th century. Another entrée, “es-cove-ich” fish, either dates back to the earlier Spanish occupation of Jamaica or was borrowed from neighboring Spanish Caribbean islands. Escovitch evolved from the Spanish (originally Catalan) escabeche—a quick-pickling technique. O’Loughlin’s version involves a snapper filet, fried and served with onions and bell peppers in a vinaigrette.
She also does jerk chicken, the one Jamaican dish Americans are familiar with, and it’s a nice rendition—juicy breast meat redolent with the classic allspice-thyme-hot chili mixture. The traditional chili would be Scotch Bonnet, the Jamaican form of the deadly Habanero (up to 300,000 Scoville Heat Units). Like the curried goat, O’Loughlin’s jerk chicken doesn’t blast you out of your chair, but it does leave your lips tingling.
“Jerk” may derive from the Peruvian-Spanish charqui, also the origin of “jerky.” An alternate etymology explains it in terms of the meat being jerked about and poked with a stick as it cooks. Traditional jerking requires a fire of pimento wood, from the tree that bears the allspice berries (Pimenta dioica).
I’ve seen the method ascribed to the Arawak Indians, who got there first; to the Maroons, who escaped from plantation slavery and holed up in the rugged Cockpit Country; to European pirates. Whatever its origin, it’s good stuff. (I was surprised not to find jerk chicken, or jerk anything, in Caroline Sullivan’s 1893 Classic Jamaican Cooking; the jerk tradition must have existed under the culinary radar of the cookbook compilers).
But jerk chicken is not considered the Jamaican national dish. That honor goes to O’Loughlin’s most unusual offering, ackee and salt fish, available only on Saturday nights. Salt cod—Sullivan called it “the despised salt fish”—has been popular in the Caribbean since colonial times. I read somewhere that its entrenchment in island cuisine has to do with the danger of eating your fish fresh.
West Indian reef fish like snappers, groupers, and triggerfish may be a source of ciguatera, a type of food poisoning resulting from toxins in microscopic dinoflagellates. Salt fish, which some of us find tasty in its own right, would have been a lot safer.
As for the ackee, there’s a long story: it’s the fruit of a tree whose botanical name is Blighia sapida, after Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty infamy—“a foul-mouthed bully,” according to Patrick O’Brian. Bligh introduced the plant from its native West Africa to Jamaica, where it was adopted with much more enthusiasm than his breadfruit. The tree is in the family Sapindaceae, related to lychee, longan, and rambutan.
Ackee fruit has a red rind, white flesh, and shiny black seeds, and everything except the flesh is poisonous—the literary critic Edmund Wilson apparently suffered a bout of ackee poisoning in Jamaica in the 1960s. The fruit, which O’Loughlin’s menu describes as avocado-like in texture, is also called “vegetable brains.”
So put the fish and ackee together with onions and tomatoes, and you get something that I liked a lot more than Wilson did (“highly esteemed by the natives but less by other people,” he groused). The texture of the ackee is reminiscent of scrambled eggs; it pretty much absorbs the flavor of the fish. I suspect this dish alone draws a lot of homesick Jamaicans to the Caribbean Cove.
Plate meals come with a green salad. The lunch’s, early in the season, was iceberg lettuce with pale tomatoes, nothing special, but the dinner salad a couple of weeks later was much improved, though still simple: romaine and tasty cherry tomatoes, a spark of grated carrot. Both had dousings of a tasty vinaigrette.
There are other entrees we haven’t sampled yet, like stewed oxtail and a couple of vegetarian options. All are in the $6 to $8 range on the lunch menu, higher at dinner. They come in generous portions with sides of rice and peas (our “peas” were actually kidney beans, cooked with the rice in coconut milk) and fried plantains.
The rice absorbs the sauces very nicely. We also didn’t get to the classic Jamaican patties, available as an appetizer stuffed with beef, chicken, or vegetables, or the salt fish fritters.
O’Loughlin also offers a splendid housemade ginger beer and handcrafted sorrel, the hibiscus-based drink that’s called jamaica in Spanish-speaking territories. Red Stripe beer—“Hooray Beer!” says the ad card on your table—also goes well with the spicy stuff. You can try the Jamaican grapefruit soda called Ting, or the two-item wine list: house red, house white.
The Caribbean Cove has a cheerful yellow-with-blue-trim interior, with island beachscapes on the wall. There’s free wi-fi and a UC student discount. Business was slow at lunchtime on a rainy Friday, but when we came back on Saturday night for the ackee and salt fish, there was more activity—a lot of takeout orders—and a reggae D.J. was setting up; I suspect the Cove gets livelier as the evening goes on.
Photograph by Stephan Babuljak
Kelly Hyde serves up a meal for Gina Johnson at the Caribbean Cove on Wednesday.