Jamaica. Ocean breezes, bright smiles and sultry nights. Okay, so I’ve never been there, but this is what I think of when I picture the island of reggae, Rastafarians and cool runnings.
Located at 1236 Williamson Street, Jamerica brings a little slice of the islands to Madison and a lot of flavor to the neighborhood. It’s impossible to miss the green, black and gold painted steps, neon in the window and hand-painted sign above the door. The inside is no less conspicuous, with every available surface plastered in postcards, posters and photos of any and everything Jamaican. Plastic tablecloths and paper towel napkins promise a get-down-on-your-knees messy meal, and I’m never disappointed.
The anticipation had been killing me. This particular outing was a belated birthday dinner for Peter, and we walked through the door about a month after initially planning the trip. Our super-courteous, curiously circumspect waiter stopped by after a few minutes to get our drink order, and I suggested that Peter try a Ting. Accepting my beverage challenge, he ordered it. I had to admit then that I’d never personally had it, but that I knew it was an island favorite (don’t ask how I know these things) and that I just liked the name. I had a tester sip, and was surprised at how sweet it was. Sweet, but good. A whole bottle might have been too much, and I’m not sure how much Peter actually had, but it definitely made me shiver in sugary delight.Ting.
The last time we were there, they were running a special of half jerk pork, half jerk chicken. For those unfamiliar, jerk is a culinary term meaning “a Caribbean spice blend applied to (typically) chicken or pork, which is smoked over pimento wood and slow-cooked in a stone-lined barbeque pit until the meat is falling off the frickin’ bone and melts like a well-paid lady of the night in your mouth.” Super yummy. They weren’t still offering it, however, and my plebian solution was that Peter should order the pork, I the chicken and we’d share. I think Peter was getting his own sugar rush from the Ting at this point, and stated that he might want to try something different. Not a difficult proposition with a menu that offers curried goat and ox tails.
Perusing the choices, I noticed something called Mango Rundown Catfish, and we got into a semantics discussion about the many meanings of the word “rundown,” trying to figure out how it applied in the context of catfish. No wiser at the end, I asked our erstwhile waiter what the dish entailed. He began listing ingredients: mango, catfish (natch), coconut, vegetables, red beans and rice. He had me at “coconut.”
Topped off liberally with a curry and black pepper sauce, the dish was overflowing; the portions are always generous, the kitchen staff stepping boisterously into the role of mater in absentia: you’re too skinny – eat, eat! The first bite was delicious, the second, divine. At several points, Peter looked at me and said “I’m not worthy.” To which I responded, “We are so blessed.” It’s not often that one feels compelled to chew slowly and with reverence, but this dish deserved the kind of respect that you reserve for mob dons and the Madonna (religious icon, not material girl).
I have nothing to compare it to, being a catfish virgin, but the dish was gentle as it educated me in the ways of seafood. “Rundown” apparently means to jerk the meat and then sauté it in coconut juice with herbs and spices, resulting in a fresh and deep flavor that literally bursts in your mouth. Every bite was carefully compiled as I made sure to load up my fork with every ingredient on the plate; and oh my, attention to detail really does pay off. Squishy mango, flaky catfish, crunchy broccoli, all intertwined for my eating pleasure. I had a bit of trepidation about the amount of sauce; there seemed to be too much, if such a thing is possible. But it was soon a moot point, as I lost myself inside the creamy goodness of heaven. Orgasmic and sacrosanct at the same time, the rich yet light dish had us moaning and rolling our eyes in ecstasy, both sacred and secular.
I could only finish a third of my meal, although Peter mad a larger dent in his. We walked out sated, the remainder of our meals in boxes and sat on the steps for the obligatory après-yummy-food smoke. The owner, Martin Deacon, happened to be sitting outside, and we had a nice chat before heading to the Crystal Bar for the obligatory après-yummy-food drink. Sweet dreams are made of these.
And I didn’t even get into the meat patty we ordered as an appetizer. You’ll just have to discover that one for yourself. While you’re at it, try the fried plantains served with salsa; the hot and sweet banana fruit combined with the cold and spicy salsa will really scramble your brain and fry your taste buds, in the best possible way.
$14 may seem a bit steep, especially when you’re a poor single gal in the city like myself, but you’re really paying for 2 meals and food from Jamerica tastes even better the second time around. They have lunch specials and a mobile food cart, so there’s really no excuse. Get it. You’ll never regret it. Though Peter and I were both curry-bombed by the end of the meal, it was a worthwhile souvenir for one of the most delectable dishes I’ve ever taken a chance on. Well played, Master Mango Rundown Catfish. Well played.
Bruce’s Extra Bits
It’s hard not to like food that comes from such a cool place. For example, take the national pledge of Jamaica, found below. Kinda beats the crap out of our pledge of allegiance.
Our National Pledge
Before God and all mankind
I pledge the love and loyalty of my heart
The wisdom and courage of my mind
The strength and vigor of my body
In the service of my fellow citizen
I promise to stand up for justice, brotherhood and peace
To serve diligently and creatively
To think generously and honestly
So that Jamaica may, under God
Increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity
And play her part in advancing the welfare
Of the whole human race