6171 Imperial Avenue, Encanto
Prices: Callaloo and codfish breakfast (with yam, boiled banana, dumpling), $7 ($10 large); ackee and codfish breakfast, $12 ($14); curry chicken with rice, beans, steamed veggies, fried plantain, ($8/$11); curry goat (same sides), $9/$12; brown stew chicken ($8/$11) fry fish (same sides) $12, up; jerk chicken, $8/$11
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily (till 6:00 p.m., Sundays)
Buses: 4, 916, 917, 961
Nearest bus stop: Imperial and 62nd (4, 961) Aikins and 62nd Streets (916, 917)
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Encanto/62nd Street
Cow foot Friday?
Except this is Sunday. Just happen to be waiting for the Orange Line trolley. Encanto, halfway east to La Mesa — Sundays, they only come every half hour. And, daggone it, one rumbled by a moment before I got here.
Look around. Hmm…houses on one side of the tracks, this 50-foot clay cliff on the other. And at its base, a long rack of shops. Lessee, a fish place, a quinceañera dress shop… Down at the end, big letters on the front slope of the roof: “Caribbean Taste.”
It’s about 5:00 in the afternoon. Warm, windy, somehow excites your hunger pangs.
Two minutes later, I’m across Imperial Avenue, heading into this place with a huge brick-and-iron oven right behind the counter. I mean, we’re talking massive, six feet high, several iron doors, big metal vents up on top. So, yeah, these guys look like they are serious about cooking.
The counter has a glassed-in display filled with reggae CDs for sale. The walls are brown — except for the back wall. A beachy blue mural fills that. Hanging wooden signs above the counter say, “Good food, good friends, good times.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6.”
Over at one of the tables, a lady named Jacqueline opens a polystyrene box stuffed with rice, veggies, and chicken. Thick black sauce covers the chicken. “BBQ chicken,” she says. “Goo-ood.”
And ,wow. There’s way plenty. What portions. I see on the photocopied menu that it’s $8 for the “small” or $11 for the “large.”
Guy comes out from the kitchen behind the oven area. He has a generous face with a big smile. Little gap between the front teeth, so you know he has to be big-hearted (that’s what my grandma always told me). Peter Ormsby. From Jamaica. Has that lilt in his voice.
He hands me a white sheet of paper with the menu items on it.
Check down the list. Lot to take in. Just the Jamaican Breakfast section…
I see they have something called callaloo and codfish, with yam, boiled banana, and dumpling, or fried dumpling; $7, or $10 large. Callaloo? Turns out it’s a Caribbean dish based around the callaloo (or amaranth) bush. It came out from West Africa with the slave ships.
Or how about ackee and codfish? That’s Jamaica’s national dish. Ackee’s a tree (also from West Africa) that has a fruit with parts that are poisonous if it’s not ripe, though it’s healthy as heck if it is. So, you have to hope the cook knows what he’s doing. Wonder what it tastes like. Costs $12; $14 for a large plate.
And the main meals? I’m seeing curry chicken ($8) and curry goat ($9), each with rice, beans, steamed veggies, fried plantain. Or brown stew chicken ($8) or fish ($12), or something I definitely recognize: jerk chicken. Carla’s always been a fan of that
There’s a bunch of people forming a line behind me. “Uh, we close in an hour,” Peter tells me. “We always get busy around this time.”
“How about the curry goat?” I ask. It costs $9 ($12 for a large).
“That’s good,” says a guy in line behind me. Brandon. “That’s what I’m going to have.”
“I’ll look,” Peter says. “I might have some left.”
And he does. Problem is, now he’s really out. Not enough for Brandon.
“Oh, man,” says Brandon. “Okay. I’ll get the fry fish [$12]. But, come Friday, you’d better not take my cow foot. Cow foot does a man good, know what I’m saying? Gives him strength. That’s why Peter cooks it Friday nights.”
They share a laugh.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s just that,” Peter says. “Hooves of a cow. We slow-cook them for an hour or more. Then we take them out and shred the meat and collect the drippings, and we add thyme and garlic powder and green onion and...okay, the rest is secret.”
“Trust me,” says Brandon. “It’s really tasty, with kind of a sticky texture. It’s a wake-up dish. Makes you feel alive.”
I get the curry goat, and it’s just as well I ordered the standard-size box. It’s jam-packed with rice and beans, steamed veggies, and chunks of fried plantain.
But what you see first is this golden rock pile: chunks of dark goat meat caught in a gossamer web of golden curry. (Hey! Waxing poetic here.)
The goat tastes, well, goatish. It has the flavor of the bush in it. But I like the combo of that gamey goat with the sweet curry and the tang of the fried plantain.
Natch, I end up coming back on Friday. Get here about 6:00 p.m. Can’t resist the lure of the cow foot — I’ll be swingin’ from the chandeliers tonight…
Except Peter comes up to me like a coach who’s gonna tell you,you didn’t make the cut for the team.
“I’m out of cow foot,” he says. “You have to call early. Reserve some, if you want to be sure to get it. I’ll see if I can scrape something from the bottom for you.”
He disappears, comes back with a tiny pot. It has a half-inch cube of meat in a light-brown gravy.
“This is the last of it,” Peter says. “But you’ll get the taste.”
I do. It’s savory, squelchy, but not in an icky way, and when I scoop up the gravy, totally dee-lish.
Dang. Whole ’nother week to wait for a full portion of it.
I get some jerk chicken for Carla. Later, if she asks how I’m feeling after the cow-foot lunch — if she gives me that look — I can say, “Darling, not now. I’m not in the moo’d.”