It's the kind of food you need in the dead of winter.
I have had my share of supposedly spicy Jamaican dishes around here, but they almost always are muted. When it comes to international specialties whether Thai, Mexican or Jamaican, the spice is curtailed as sort of a safety measure. Even though we claim we want it hot, the owners don't think we can truly handle their level of heat.
At Pepper & Spice Jamaican restaurant in the Waynedale area, this practice is not followed, and that is a great thing. But that is not to say the food here will blow out your palate. Jamaican food does not have to be – and really shouldn't be – crazy spicy.
The oxtail was the best example of this. Pepper & Spice was out of it the first time I visited, and I was glad I finally did get to try it because it was exquisite. It had the perfect balance of rich, slow-cooked comfort with just a tickle of peppery spice in its dark brown sauce. The super-tender shredded meat soaked up the flavors of the fatty marrow from the bone and cartilage it fell from.
The oxtail was joined by potatoes, onions and carrots that were also slow cooked to perfection, as well as a side of rice and beans – black and kidney – and steamed cabbage, which was a key addition as it has a hint of sweetness to it that brightened up the dish.
You will be asked how hot you want your dish, but if you lean to the safe side and crave more, there are bottles of a thick, syrupy scotch bonnet pepper hot sauce on the table for you to tinker with. But that sauce is only available if you dine in, which few folks do. There are only a few tables and it is predominantly a take-out place, but those tables were full during my visits.
The jerk chicken was spicy. If you do not like spicy food, steer clear, but it is not going to be any more troublesome than a standard hot-level chicken wing. So, there is no need to ask for it hotter unless you really want it to light you up. It, too, was delicious and I could find nary a flaw with the grilled bone-in bird. It was not sauce-laden like the oxtail, which also came with the bean-and-rice mixture and its skin had a little crispness to it. The meat was juicy and perfectly cooked, and I enjoyed every bite,
The brown stew chicken was coated in a thick sauce like the oxtail, but this sauce was much different – all the sauces are made from scratch to suit the meat it is coating. Its sauce was thicker than the oxtail that gave it a somewhat velvety texture and it had a less pronounced peppery flavor than the oxtail version. The chicken fell from the bone and melted in your mouth, but, of course, the skin was sacrificed to mush in the process.
The owner told me the chicken is stewed on top of the vegetables in the pot and cooks for much less time than the oxtail, which is buried at the bottom of the pot under all the vegetables so it really bathes in the sauce.
The Jamaican patties were a real treat, but they were not available during my second visit. The menu has been scaled back a bit for winter – and apparently so had the heater because it was chilly in there – but the patties had not been removed, it was just that the supply had been exhausted on this day.
Ground beef with a delicious well-seasoned flavor that was not overly spicy was stuffed inside a flaky, bright yellow dough to create these little snacks. Chicken versions are also available. They were a must-try and will be ordered by me whenever they are available.
I will also go back to Pepper & Spice for the curried goat. These rib pieces had a nice even spice level that built as you devoured them. The stringy meat was tender and moist, and I loved every morsel.
The curried shrimp were not very big, but they were nicely cooked and not at all overdone. It was the mildest dish I had thanks in part to the sweetness the shrimp imparted, and the serving size was generous. I did not like that the tails were attached as this yellow-sauced dish with carrots and bell peppers made a fork necessary. It had been taken off the menu with the winter purge and I would likely pass on it if it ever returns.
I will not pass on having another one of the Jamaican sodas offered in a little cooler in the dining room. There were grape, pineapple and grapefruit versions, but my favorite was the pineapple-ginger, which was sweet on the palate at first with a little bit of kick at the end of each sip from the strong essence of the root.
Though the Jamaican fare Pepper & Spice served was well made and a great value, making it a regular destination might be tricky. It's not that it wasn't tasty, it is just not the style of food I crave regularly. And given it is a small operation where having leftover food is not in the cards, I am not sure I could count on getting what I wanted all of the time.
But I will call ahead next time I crave it to see if there are any patties. If there are and there happens to be plenty of oxtail, I will rush back.
Restaurant: Pepper & Spice Jamaican Restaurant
Address: 2801 Lower Huntington Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Patties ($2.50), oxtail ($10.85), jerk chicken ($10.85), stewed chicken ($7.85), shrimp ($10.85), goat ($10.85)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Pepper & Spice
Out of a possible five