You can feel it as soon as you see the jaunty carrot-and-blue exterior; it feels local without being Sandals-resort contrived. Scents of cooking weave out onto the sidewalk, beckoning. Reggae, of course, plays.
The tables inside are colorful, but find a spot outside on the patio, shaded by grassy umbrellas and bordered by gaily painted oil drums like a Montego Bay roadside kitchen.
While pleasantly Jamaican in vibration, Cha Cha Chicken does not claim a single island as home, but pulls in influences from all over the sultry Caribbean.
The Jerk Veggie Enchiladas are coated in a mango jerk sauce that rings of habañero and pineapple; the effect is a spicy sweetness that permeates the carrots, cabbage, peas, potato and cheese inside, all rendered pliable under the fork. With this comes dirty rice done proper, purpled with juices, and a couple of darkly grainy plantains about which I will write in a moment.
I don't often order wraps, since they're usually lazily called a "caesar wrap" or a "jerk chicken wrap" and take the form of disappointment.
Ricky's Wrap, though, is a burrito-sized beast. Dirty rice, black beans, stubbornly hot potato, lettuce slowly losing its crunch, and carrot accompany the chicken. The chicken! It's shredded into a wondrous heap, tender and sodden, and from it you can probably wring out a shot glass of juice.
The chicken and its servants are wound in lavash instead of a tortilla, spotty-brown from the griddle and crisp around the edges. A cup of spicy jerk sauce is there, if you can manage to dunk the wrap into it without losing the contents to gravity.
The Fried Plantains are an attractive burnt gold, smile-inducingly sweet and soft. A spoonful of cool mayonnaise gives them an extra creamy angle.
There is also a reliable Black Bean soup, puréed into simplicity, with limp strips of tortilla and a dollop of sour cream. It's a worthy starter but not photogenic.
Oh, and hello, dear friend. Any place that carries this stuff knows what's up.
Cha Cha Chicken is open until ten daily, luring you in from your walk along the beach or when you're tired of the highbrow tourism and performance art of the 3rd Street Promenade.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Jamaican, Santa Monica/Culver City )
Ignore the sign above, and go by the sign below. You'll need to come in by the Bank of America parking lot and work your way to the back; you'll see the sign along the row of businesses.
This is Sonia's, no longer new, far from fancy, but walled with giant photos of Jamaican coastline, which is all I need. Sonia's is the real deal north of Pico.
Sonia's seems used to catering, or people zipping in to pick up a phone order, so they may look a bit surprised when you choose to actually sit at one of the six tables and eat there. Chances are about 50-50 that they will be out of whatever you order first.
The food is served unfussily in a styrofoam container with a packet of plastic utensils, and aside from the environmental impact you shouldn't mind at all. For beneath this creaky styrofoam lid is some of the best darned Brown Stew Chicken I've had in my life, including the enjoyable experiences I had in Negril.
I say "wow" internally for the first few bites of intensely soft threads of chicken, relaxed within an inch of their lives in a dark, full-bodied sauce. I naturally expect to reach in and extract the occasional bit of hardness--part of the ritual of eating homestyle dishes such as this--but not a single bone threatens my cheeks. It's all chicken and stew sauce until I scrape the bottom with plastic fork.
"Rice and peas" is basically chopped kidney beans and rice, vaguely pinkish and on the drier side but nice; it becomes luxurious when it soaks up some of the brown stew sauce. The amber-colored plantains are sweet and gentle, not as caramelized as Brazilian but not woody. A dry slaw of cabbage and carrot rests alongside for color and crunch.
This is fully enough for a lunch, but I have a weakness for Jamaican patties. The half-moon pastry shell is a vibrant school-bus yellow, flaky and tangy. The patties are kept in a little oven throughout the day, so the beef or chicken is magma-hot, but so succulent and spicy that I just take extra sips from my bottle of Ting to get through it.
For the more adventurous (in the Valley, anyway), the murky stuff with the military colors you see here is Curried Goat. It has the appropriate gaminess, you have to pick up the bone and wrest the meat away from it, and requires more labor for the love, but the meat and tendon is so juicy, and the sauce so spicy and complex, that you deal with it. Limp rings of onion hide within. A low, persistent burn presides, but a few shakes from a bottle of Jamaican pepper sauce is not unwelcome.
I've seen some who claim dissatisfaction with Sonia's, but they tend to be people whose reviews always contain the words "they were out of the Jerk Chicken," which tells me they haven't been sampling enough Jamaican cuisine. Jerk chicken takes a long time, meant to be bought from a busy man or woman behind a oil barrel grill, torn apart, and devoured with white bread along a dusty boulevard. Since both the oil barrel and the environment are difficult to obtain, give jerk chicken some patience. It's a dry-rubbed force of nature, not an entry-level dish for the timid explorer.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), The Valley, Jamaican )
Three words: They Have Ting.*
Kingston Café was closed for remodeling... for three years. For a restaurant in Southern California, a "closed for remodeling" sign is too often a death knell, a saddened shake of the head until something new tries to open in its place. However, Kingston has been reopened by the same family, with new chefs, a more dignified interior, and new Caribbean-fusion finesse.
The interior is divided into small two- and three-table rooms, each with its own title (we want to reserve a party in "Ackee" one day), and a large, pumpkin-hued back room where the bar and the band is. Reggae, naturally, lopes through the speakers**... and hey! I have this Trojan Box Set compilation at home! I knew I recognized Max Romeo's "My Jamaican Collie".
The dinner dishes are marinated masterpieces. The Jerked Chicken is a deep mahogany on the outside, lying in a thick brown stew sauce; gentle prodding causes the meat to fall away from the bone like wispy garments at a burlesque performance. I ordered it spicy, which means a higher concentration of scotch bonnet peppers evilly plotting my demise, and a low, stalking mouth-burn that is distracted only by the cool mango salsa.
The quintessentially Jamaican dish that is Curried Goat has a similar presentation but is stewed with onion and thyme, made into a liquid velvet with a gentle pimento flair that zips around the sides of the mouth. Bianca made a conscious decision to interrupt her six-month period of not eating meat to have curried goat. This, like the Jerked Chicken, comes with white rice, or a solid support-cylinder of red beans and rice, and a sunny batch of carrot slices and green beans which is tastier and friendlier than "carrots and green beans" sounds like.
For lunch there's a Jerk Burger, the patty darkened and dried by the jerk seasoning. Ordering this spicy may produce coughing and possibly hiccups, cooled infinitesimally by the mango salsa. The sesame seed bun is simple, but offering a burger at all on a Jamaican menu is merely a nod to our U.S. palates. The french fries are crisply moist and lightly seasoned, and need no dipping sauce or ketchup.
Oh, do this: get a side of the Fried Plantains. They are sweeter even than Bossa Nova's, and keep their golden texture. Also try the long slices of festival, a cornmeal fritter that's as moist as buttered cornbread and sweet as innocence.
There's Rum Cake and sugared walnuts for dessert, dense and lush with the scent of cane, but we are full, so full. Seen? How I nyam so much?
They do not (yet) have Blue Mountain coffee, and that is a cause for temporary sadness... but we spoke to them and they did tell us that new dishes were forthcoming... allow me to place the lovely words "ackee and saltfish" in your mind. Yu tan deh!
The building belongs partially to a Women's Diagnostic Imaging Group, and the parking lot belongs to the Salvation Army, so of course I think this is a perfectly sensible place to have a Jamaican restaurant (I, however, think there should be Caribbean restaurants placed everywhere, so my opinion is biased). You can park in the lot for dinner as long as you inform the waiter. Kingston Café is closed Sundays and Mondays, but since live reggae plays every Saturday night, maybe that's a necessary two-day recovery ting.
* If you know us, you know our love for this grapefruit soda and the memories it brings.
** Thank you, Kingston Café, for not automatically busting out the easily-recognized-by-tourists "Jammin'" and "One Love" in resort fashion.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Jamaican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
The locations in West Hollywood and Encino are closed, so we can concentrate on the original, shaking its tailfeathers on the dingy corner of Virgil and Melrose. Every square inch is saucily colored; one wall is on fire, another draped with faux cannabis leaves. Virgin Mary altars and prayer candles gaze serenely over the diners. It's a party place steeped in its own invented traditions.
We tend to get the tapas-style dishes that end up stuffing the hell out of us. The Ceviche Guadalupe is a rich, seafoody salsa, all swordfish, salmon, and shrimp all swimming together in a samba spa, and other insane alliteration I can't avoid when dipping my chips into this stuff.
The Black Bean Tamales are smoooooth, the cornmeal infused with the unique scent and taste of black bean and golden caviar.
The Jerk Pork is a tenderloin powerhouse on a crisped tortilla, drenched in a dark spicy sauce bent on revenge. It's not especially Jamaican--it's more like a mole sauce that's spent some time in prison--but it commands attention.
Some aren't our favorites but are worth trying, and go well with particular drinks. The Guava and Goat Cheese Quesadilla is almost like a stuffed pita, and the guacamole is necessary to ease off on the goat cheese tang. The Crispy Shrimp Cakes are like a mutant crab cake fought a box of Rice Krispies, except a lot better than that particular simile sounds; the shrimp is subdued and not overly battery. The tartar sauce helps.
Their tropical punch is grapefruity rather than a saccharine red, and if I retained hold of the menu I could tell you what was in Bianca's "Voodoo Spiced Cocktail."
Parking is a five-buck valet investment, but street parking is a little nervous.
There's a pair of Cha Cha Chas in San Francisco (on Haight and on Mission) that are highly acclaimed, and I'm unsure if they're related.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Brazilian, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Jamaican )
BBQ Wit' An Island Ting
390 E. Walnut Street (west of Los Robles Avenue)
Phone: 626-449-8095 | map
Hutch's has been around since the late forties, and seems like it's back in the process of reinventing itself. The exterior is a wonderfully weatherbeaten house, the sign says it's a BBQ joint, the decor is nearly nonexistent, and the menu is heavily Jamaican-inspired. Some paint has been applied, the napkins are cloth, the waitstaff impeccably dressed, but the old tile floors and hole-spotted white ceiling suggest a work in progress.
Because it was a house, the restaurant is split into several rooms. One side has charming paned windows and tries to convey a cultured dining experience. The middle room wouldn't be out of place in a German pub. The left side has an ugly, haunted, forgotten-back-room vibe amplified by a crooked mass-produced painting and tiny speakers blaring Broadway showtunes.
As I said, the menu is Jamaican-inspired, and one can catch glimpses of the dreadlocked chef working the skillets. The plantains are lightly fried and glazed and want only some hot sauce dashed atop (we asked for some, and they brought us a dish of perfectly tongue-stinging, cough-inducing Jamaican-style hot salsa). The brown stew chicken is savory, easy enough to work around the bones. The roasted garlic potatoes have a nice little crust on them. The roasted veggies are pleasingly blackened on the sides, and are actually better than the red beans & rice which are a bit bland.
Probably the best dish they have is the curried goat, tender like pulled pork and richly textured like steak. If you haven't tried goat, it's better and healthier than you think it is.
They serve Red Stripe beer in frosty mugs, but of course that doesn't work for Red Stripe, a brew best thrown down straight from the bottle on a hot day. For dessert there's peach cobbler, of course, and a boysenberry cobbler... and while there ain't many boysenberries in Jamaica, we will forgive them this sweet departure.
Perhaps the Pasadena crowd would feel threatened if Hutch's altered its American "BBQ" history, but personally I think it needs to embrace its international flair and do some more painting and tropical picture-hanging. Certainly it needs to stop playing the showtunes and think about some reggae, calypso, Afro-Cuban jazz, or blues. I like hearing Judy Garland at Old Dog New Trick Cafe in New Orleans, but not here.
We were there on a slow and sleepy summer evening, so I will return to try some of their sandwiches for lunch, like the hot link or BBQ chicken.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), BBQ, Jamaican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )