If you know where to look, Jamaican cuisine lurks on various menus around Denver. The Welton Street Cafe has a selection of the Jamaican meat pies called patties along with its soul food offerings, and the Caribbean Bakery on East Colfax Avenue offers specialties from Jamaica and Trinidad. But for a complete Jamaican experience — with Bob Marley posters on the wall and the aromas of curry and allspice drifting from the kitchen — the Jamaican Grill on Eighth Avenue near the Arts District on Santa Fe is the only (mostly) full-service eatery in town offering food of the island nation.
Jamaica is better known for reggae, Rastafarianism and reefer — at least in Denver. But the food — a combination of seafood, indigenous ingredients and immigrant dishes — has its own character built from centuries of European colonization, the African slave trade and waves of other settlers, including those from India, most of whom came as indentured servants to British landowners.
The Jamaican Grill covers a fairly small cross-section of these influences, but curried chicken — a dish found throughout the Caribbean — makes an appearance, as does jerk chicken, pork and fish. Jerk seasoning has become so ubiquitous in the U.S. that it can be found sprinkled onto everything from burgers and fries to grilled salmon Caesar salads in even the most insipid corporate chains, but the origins of the flavors and technique can be traced back to Africa. At the Jamaican Grill, jerked meats are given more than just a perfunctory spice-jar shake; instead, the seasoning penetrates into the meat with heat and allspice.
After a recent home-cooked Jamaican meal in Aurora, I was looking to find those flavors again: curried goat and oxtail stew — and the green-and-yellow festooned Jamaican Grill serves both. A notice on the restaurant's website warns that the kitchen shuts down half an hour before the restaurant closes, so I made sure to stop in well before the posted 9 p.m. Saturday closing time. Even so, I seemed to be too late, as the clerk behind the counter informed me that they only had a few dishes left and that I'd need to take my order to go.
A little jerk chicken and some fish, yes — but no goat was left. Oxtail? There was just enough for one order. So at 7:30 p.m. I sat and waited for my food, sipping an oddly thick, peanut-flavored canned drink called Big Bamboo (with the flavor and texture of a melted peanut butter milkshake), as the clerk turned off the neon "Open" sign and put out a chalkboard announcing that the place was closed for the night.
One more group of customers came in while I paid for my food; I think I heard the clerk offer the remaining dishes to them, so I hope they got something to eat, even if the selection was limited. Once in my car, the rich aroma of the oxtail invaded my senses and I knew I wouldn't make it home before digging into the styrofoam to-go container. Surveying my options, I headed two blocks away to the Renegade Brewing tap room for a beer to go with my stew.
Although oxtail doesn't provide much in the way of meat, what was there pulled easily from the bones, offering tender bites of beef coated in a thick, dark sauce that resembled a Mexican mole but presented only layer after layer of the flavor of slow-cooked meat on the bone, without much seasoning other than salt and pepper. Butter beans found their way to the surface of the sauce, adding creamy texture atop rice stained a reddish-brown from having been cooked with smaller, darker beans (kidney beans, perhaps). The rice, even without the unctuous gravy from the stew, had a creaminess of its own that could only come from additional fat. I thought perhaps the rice was cooked with tallow or lard, but a quick look at a few recipes revealed that coconut milk is commonly used.
Fried wedges of sweet plantain added fruity sweetness to the dish, which I made quick work of between sips of Renegade beer. I felt a little self-conscious picking up the oxtail bones to clean them of every last bit of meat, but the other bar patrons were too intent on their pints to give much thought to my table manners.
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I learned two things from my Saturday dinner at the Jamaican Grill: go early and, if you must take your order takeout, Renegade's not a bad place to settle in. The restaurant opens for lunch at 11 a.m., so a mid-day meal is the best bet for finding everything on the menu available. A weekday lunch would be tough, though, because after a heaping plate of oxtail stew and a beer (not to mention that peanut smoothie), a long nap in a hammock is a much more tempting choice than heading back to the office.
In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a different culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of July, he's offering a potpourri of cultures with little restaurant representation in town — ethnic cuisines that might otherwise be overlooked. This month's other Ethniche restaurants (so far):
The Sudan Cafe
Makan Malaysian Cafe