Food

The Find: Front Page Jamaican Grille

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Front Page Jamaican Grille is one of those places where the guy working behind the counter will tell you, in no uncertain terms, what his favorite dish is. Where the owner will come out and shower love on your dog and then show you pictures of her own sweet pup. Where regulars in hot pink dresses breezing by to pick up their dinners will lean over your table, eye your oxtails and tell you: "Ooh, you got the good stuff!"

People having their first bite of Front Page's jerk chicken typically fall silent, in a sort of reverent awe at the char and spice. The chicken is marinated in house-made jerk seasoning for a day, then grilled to a dense, juicy, blackened perfection. In every dish here — whether jerk chicken or goat curry or oxtails — the amped-up seasoning embraces the meat but never trounces the flavor.

Front Page is tiny. There's a counter, and a sign on the counter that says there's no eating at the counter. There are a couple of metal tables inside and out. It's close enough to LAX that you could conceivably drop by and pick up a to-go order to eat on the plane, if you enjoy torturing your seatmates with jerk perfume.

Valdo Carlyle and his wife, Pamela, own the place. Valdo learned to cook as a boy in Jamaica. "Me and my friends, under the bridge, on the bank of the river, hanging out in the bushes. We'd go fish," he says, "we'd bring a pot, some salt and some black pepper. That's all you need."

Maybe this is why the best dish of all here is shimmeringly perfect grilled red snapper. The fish has the gentle, succulent texture you'd expect in a Hong Kong live fish-tank joint, but is covered in a spiky, pungent sauce full of blackened onion and carbonized garlic and a serious hit of salt. (The fish takes half an hour, so you'd best call in your order on your way there.)

Valdo stumbled into the restaurant business almost accidentally. "I worked for United Airlines for 19 years, the ramps. Every day, I brought my own food in, and every day, they tried to steal my food. After I gave them a taste, I put my food in the fridge, and then when I came back it was gone. So my wife said, 'Why don't you try selling your food?' That's how I got started — selling my food every Thursday at air freight in United Airlines."

Valdo clearly respects every cut of meat. Short ribs are grilled slow, to get the fat out, he says. The result is tender meat and cartilage suspended about an inch away from total liquefaction. Tangy oxtails are braised so long that you can slurp the meat right off the bone; they're perhaps the best oxtails in the city, in any cuisine.

Everything that rolls out of the kitchen seems pretty much perfect, from the still-crisp, subtly spiced vegetables to the coconut-flavored rice and beans. Valdo's just a natural. "I don't have a measurement to give you, it's just a flow I have," he says. "I don't cook by measurement and I don't cook by time. I just cook my meat until it tastes right."

For lovers of goat, this may be the winner in the Los Angeles-area goat smack-down. There are two forms here, and both are spectacular. Goat curry gives you chunks of meat on the bone and has the twin twang of tangy green curry and gamey goat, rising and winding around each other like a double helix of pungency.

If all that flavor isn't enough for you, ask for a bit of Valdo's homemade hot sauce, a gorgeously blistering concoction of habaneros and herbs, blended and cooked into fiery perfection. A dab — just a tiny dab, mind you — adds a beautifully sharp high note to all that meaty warmth.

To finish, try one of the drinks. The simplicity of the sorrel drink will soothe your tongue after all that heat, and pineapple ginger beer will give you a pleasant kick of fresh ginger behind some pineapple fizz. But if you like being taken to the edge of the precipice of gustatory possibility, order some of the restaurant's mega-hot reggae wings, and then top them off with the unadulterated ginger beer. That combination will knock you to the ground and then punch you in the face again. In a good way.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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