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Getting Down Home JAMAICAN

Not long ago, a super-hot Caribbean food trend flashed through L.A. faster than you can say cha cha cha. The era spawned a few good eating spots that still serve tropical rum drinks and cruise ship-style fantasy dishes.

But these aren’t the restaurants where L.A.'s transplanted Jamaicans typically eat. They do their eating in neighborhood sorts of places that serve up true-to-its-roots Jamaican comfort food.

Most of these cafes prepare the kind of time-consuming dishes that most urban Jamaicans would rather leave to the talent (and patience) of a good cook: stewed chicken and fried dumplings, long simmered oxtail stew and the inevitable rice-and-bean staple (called “rice and peas " in the Jamaican tradition at most of these restaurants) cooked in seasoned coconut milk.

The essence of Jamaica’s national slogan--"out of many, one people"--also suits the island’s eclectic cuisine. Waves of European conquerors, millions of West African slaves and East Indian indentured servants have all stirred a little something into Jamaica’s well-seasoned melting pot. It’s a place where curry dishes and roti (an Indian bread) are as popular as proper British afternoon tea.

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Swirls of Reggae concert flyers decorate the walls of the dining room at Del Rose Act I. Red tablecloths, intense yellow place mats and vivid green napkins, along with boxes of fresh plantains for sale near the take-out window, give this nondescript storefront the feeling of the sun-drenched Caribbean.

Each time I’ve eaten here everything’s been expertly prepared--even the fish--and that’s not always the case in Jamaican restaurants. Large red snappers are sliced into thick steaks, then lightly dusted with flour and “escoviched” (sauteed onions and seasoned vinegar are poured over them just as they finish cooking). A mound of rice and peas, fried sweet plantains, and cabbage flecked with oregano accompany the fish. And with everything comes two triangles of festival bread--a barely sweetened doughnut-like bun, which here, is uncommonly light.

Del Rose serves a meaty curry goat and also ackee and salt cod. Ackee , a vegetable that’s part of a large tree flower, reminds a lot people of scrambled eggs; the salt cod punctuates its mild taste perfectly.

In characteristic Jamaican style, Del Rose’s hours are unpredictable. The restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes about 8:30 or as late as 10 p.m. depending on the flow of customers and the supply of food.

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Del Rose Act I, 2921 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (213) 558-9314. Open Tuesday through Saturday.

Tastee Bakery and take-out, near the new Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Shopping Center, is one of the latest additions to L.A.'s Jamaican scene.

Like the name says, Tastee Bakery excels in traditional Jamaican baked goods. There’s toto , a spicy, not-too-sweet cake with a dense, crumbly texture. Hard dough bread, a huge compact loaf of white bread makes spectacular toast. Meat “patties,” the national Jamaican snack, are annatto-flavored pastries. While most Jamaican places have them, Tastee’s are particularly thin and flaky. Even though they’re flavored with fresh Scotch bonnet chile peppers, the spiced-beef filling is barely hot. Also try plantain tarts; gizada, a crispy coconut tart; Tastee’s dense, sweet potato pudding; and the brilliantly-spiced Jamaican bread called bun .

Hearty slabs of hard dough bread are the foundation of Tastee’s Jamaican-style marinated roast beef sandwiches. A light, spiced sauce goes over the beef and leaves a chile afterglow in your mouth. Tastee also makes home-roasted, cold chicken sandwiches drizzled with savory pan juices.

Drinks (non-alcoholic) are another Tastee specialty. Sorrel drink, a juice made from hibiscus flowers, is fruity and intense, and fresh ginger beer is deeply pungent. Fresh carrot juice is squeezed to order and served plain. (Most places blend it with condensed milk and spices into a sweet shake-like drink.) Irish moss, a concoction that tastes like a nutmeg milk shake is considered a Jamaican health drink. “It’s a meal in a drink,” says Tastee’s owner, Lloyd Sinclair.

Tastee Bakery, 3907 Santa Rosalia Drive (west of Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza, off Stocker St.), (213) 299-9459. Open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

The Universal Restaurant, also known as “Joe’s,” is a tiny place wedged between a fish store and an office building. There really is a Joe and he happens to be one of the best Jamaican cooks in town. His cowfoot stew is one of the most well-bred treatments of the dish I’ve ever eaten. A few tiny “boiled” dumplings, the size of blueberries, are blended in the stew’s rich gravy; then, on the side is a large savory fried dumpling. Lima beans garnish the dish which comes with rice and peas.

If you’re not partial to cowfoot stew or even the peppery and wonderful oxtail stew, Joe’s also offers stewed chicken, barbecued chicken and the usual curries. And he sells homemade Jamaican drinks: tart refreshing sorrel and thick creamy sour sop (guanabana fruit and sweetened milk) among them.

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The Universal Restaurant (Joe’s), 50 Santa Barbara Plaza (enter corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Buckingham Rd.), Los Angeles, (213) 299-4511. Open seven days 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.

“When Jamaicans first come to town they go to Stone’s to get the grapevine,” one Jamaican told me. The bakery and take-out restaurant next to the 18-year-old Stone Caribbean Market, has become a veritable institution for Jamaicans in Los Angeles. What’s more, some of the best Jamaican bun in the city comes out of its tiny kitchen. (It’s like gingercake and full of ginger, nutmeg and molasses.)

Stone’s also sells coco bread, meat turnovers and Jamaican-style carrot cake. And there’s almost always a line of people waiting to pick up or order Stone’s take-out dinners. These are listed on a blackboard behind the counter and vary daily. Usually they include copious servings of stewed chicken, short ribs, curry chicken or goat. All come with rice and peas, several strips of fried plantains and sometimes a vegetable or a leaden boiled dumpling (Jamaican dumplings are always like paperweights). And if ever there was a glorification of the lowly bean it is Stone’s “stew beans,” slowly simmered with cured beef.

One note: Stone’s is moving soon to larger quarters. A bright blue awning is in place, but the opening date is uncertain.

Stone Bakery Co., 6700 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 753-3847. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday until 7 p.m. New location scheduled to open at 6437 Crenshaw Blvd.

By now Jamaicaphiles and barbecue seekers know all about Janet’s Jerk Chicken Pit, a tiny restaurant specializing in meats dry-marinated in jerk seasoning. Most of the time, Janet’s enormous open grill holds slabs of smoldering “jerked” flattened chicken halves, or chunks of beef and pork; their aroma hovers near the ordering counter ensuring you’ll be starved by the time you reach your table.

Although it’s the chicken that has put Janet’s on the foodie map, I am particularly partial to the jerked pork dinner. Beneath its spicy (but not really hot) seasoning layer, the meat is rich and juicy. You can also try jerk burgers, jerk fish, jerk ribs and jerk sausage links. And all the dinners come with a rather dense but good festival bread, plantains and two additional side dishes. Potato salad, rice and beans and yams are the best choices, and I’d definitely avoid the frozen “vegetables du jour.”

Janet’s Original Jerk Chicken Pit, 1541 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 296-4621 or (213) 296-4646. Open Monday through Saturday noon to 9 p.m.,

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Sunday 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The rum drinks at Jamaica West outshine every rum drink I’ve ever tasted in a neo-Carib restaurant (or, for that matter, any other bar). Fresh juices and particularly subtle blending give them an extra edge.

Every Thursday evening the restaurant serves an all-you-can-eat Jamaican buffet from 5 to 10 p.m. It’s best to come early to get the full effect of the spread: A whole poached seabass is decorated with cucumbers and tomatoes--very plain, fresh and moist. Chaffing dishes are filled with curry goat, large plump Creole-style shrimp in a mild sauce, and oxtail with beans “cooked down tender,” as they say on the Island. There’s also red pea (bean) soup, vibrant with herbs and a little pepper, and jerk chicken--good and smoky, but on one occasion, a little dry from being left out too long.

One caveat: The spicing from this kitchen tends to be a bit played down, perhaps in deference to West Side tastes.

On weekends Reggae disco and dancing begin at about 9 p.m., and after 10 p.m. there is a $5 cover charge. The charge is waived if you are dining, but reservations are required after 10 p.m.

Jamaica West Restaurant and Bar, 2205 Lincoln Blvd. (1 block north of Venice Blvd.), Venice, (213) 578-2926. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight.

The old Jamaica Royal restaurant has been taken over by new management; it’s now called Hannah Towne Restaurant and Bakery. There’s a small, comfortable dining room next door to the bakery take-out room, and the menu is fairly standard. There’s curry chicken, curry goat, oxtail stew and braised short ribs. Although the restaurant’s jerk chicken is baked rather than grilled, its hot and spicy flavoring and juicy meat was remarkably good.

Hannah Towne is the only Jamaican place I’ve come across that bakes whole-wheat hard-dough bread. The bakery also turns out good gingery bulah cake, cinnamon buns, crispy coconut tarts and sweet potato pudding daily. The only problem is that the quality of the baking is uneven: Coco bread has been too yeasty at times, and the meat and vegetable patties have been too doughy.

Hannah Towne Restaurant and Bakery, 4213 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 293-5044. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Coley’s, which has been in the same location for more than seven years, has recently been remodeled. Now the Crenshaw storefront is practically genteel, with a two-level dining room and pristine peach-colored tablecloths.

Coley’s side dishes demonstrate careful cooking in its kitchen. The rice in the rice and beans is always fluffy and subtly flavored. Festival bread is like a delicious dense little doughnut, and the vegetables are fresh and lightly steamed. A generous serving of curry chicken comes mildly spiced and is perfect with its fried sweet plantain.

At dinner time, half of the items on the menu are fish or seafood. Coley’s conch soup (served Fridays only) is superb. But I can’t recommend the red snapper; the small, whole bony fish could have been fresher on the times I tried it. Other items have been carefully done, though. Shrimp patties--just like meat patties only filled with potato and chunks of large shrimp--are excellent. Coley’s also makes the traditional beef patties, and patties with chicken or vegetable fillings.

Coley’s Kitchen, 4335 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 293-6930. Open Monday through Thursday 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday through Saturday 10 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m.

Not all Jamaican restaurant are meat-dominated. Jucy’s, for instance, specializes in Ital vegetarian dinners (translation: “completely natural”). Unfortunately, the dinner I tried turned out to be a fairly mundane dish of carrots, potatoes, red beans and other vegetables stewed in coconut milk. A few greens, plantains and a rock-hard whole wheat dumpling (Jamaican boiled dumplings are almost always rock hard) accompanied it. The creamy peanut punch (like a peanut milk shake) was much better. And a small, whole red snapper was fresh and meaty.

But it’s the old-fashioned, robust soups that Jucy’s does best. Thick, beefy cowfoot soup (available daily), is stick-to-your-ribs good, Jamaican grandmother style. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you can get fish soup; on Wednesdays there’s chicken soup, and on Fridays beef soup. Jucy’s Naturalart Jamaican Restaurant, 3426 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 737-9277 or 732-8865. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.


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