If ever an ethnic culinary style was representative of its country of origin, then Jamaican recipes are, at the very least, overt. Colorful, zestful, and lively, Jamaican, and Caribbean food in general, is like a calypso- laced carnival; happy, joyous, and free, with simple but contrasting flavors coming together on the plate to create a sensual and fun epicurean dance of savory sunshine.
I recently stopped in at Port Royal Café and was treated to all of the above in a homey and relaxed space that is more reminiscent of a Cuban paladares (in Cuba many locals turn a room in their house into a small restaurant, known as a paladares) than your regular Californian restaurant. The front section of the restaurant is the primary dining area and is light, bright, colorful, austerely furnished, and, like my server Zoje (pronounced Zoë), creates a friendly and disarming ambience.
The menu is relatively small and flexible, inasmuch as some of the menu items listed are not always available. I ordered the Spicy Shrimp Skewers as an appetizer ($4.00) when my first choice was unavailable, and was served four rather large “tail and skin on” juicy and colorful crustaceans of the tastiest kind, even better than the menu’s description of “four medium shrimp.”
Skewered and unadorned, the presentation could not have been simpler, and the flavor could not have been more vibrant. Hot and peppery, these shrimp were perfectly prepared and mouthwatering, but not for the faint of heart, as the spice level was anything but timid.
Although there are some fascinating sounding dishes available here, including Nutty Nutty Chicken (sautéed in coconut juice, half portion $9.95), Calypso Chicken (fried in mango sauce, half portion $8.95), or Escoveitched Fish (fried in scotch bonnet vinegar sauce, $10.95 for a half portion), I chose a half portion of the Tasty Curry Chicken (served with rice and red peas, steamed vegetables, and fried plantain, $8.95).
Service was reliable, and my dish appeared with a smile from Zoje about five minutes after my appetizer disappeared. The lunch-sized half portion was remarkably generous, with a good helping of the curry, respectable portions of rice and red peas, and plantain, with the vegetables represented by some delightfully tasty and fresh shredded boiled cabbage.
The Jamaican interpretation of curry is vastly different from its Indian or Asian counterparts, and is more like a stew.
Cooked along with bones and skin, the chicken flavor was strong and, with a hint of cumin, gave a suggestion of spice without offending those of a more sensitive palatable nature.
This dish was a real delight, with a more than satisfying serving, and it definitely displayed an authentic Jamaican tone. No imposters here, that’s for sure.
Accompanied by a very refreshing bottled effervescent grapefruit drink called “Ting,” the gently relaxing tones of the late, great Bob Marley being gently piped in from the back, and the freshness of the Santa Monica breeze embracing this airy room, my meal was certainly a calming lunchtime carnival of taste.
Port Royal Café, 1412 Broadway, 310.458.4147. Opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.