CARIBBEAN Kitchen is a great place to go to get out of a rut. A lunch rut, the kind that's easily stumbled into during the workweek. You know the kind: Every day, you leave your downtown office, march into the same nondescript deli/luncheonette a block away and order a tuna on whole-wheat. Maybe you go nuts on Friday and get a bag of Doritos.
When you are ready to break out of that rut, Caribbean Kitchen is a wonderful find. Formerly in a smaller location on Liberty Street, the restaurant moved to this downtown location last fall.
Chefs Shirley Lewis and Junior Henry make the Jamaican and West Indian food from scratch every day. The counter service is straightforward and friendly; the decor is basic, but the atmosphere is lively, thanks to the reggae tunes cranking out in the background.
Better get there on the early side of the lunch hour, because things sell out fast, as we discovered when we went for dinner. By 5:30 p.m., only a handful of entrees and sides remained. Curried chicken was an obvious choice, but oxtail raised our eyebrows.
"It's beef," owner Michael Lewis said in his delightful singsong voice. "I'm telling you, man, it's good."
He was right. Taken from the tail of the cow, the meat is comparable to lean stewing beef that's been seasoned and simmered in a rich beef-based gravy for three hours. By the time it reached the table, the meat was practically sliding off the bone.
The curried chicken also featured melt-in-the-mouth tender meat (mostly dark). The thick, mottled, dark-yellow curry sauce had just the right amount of spice.
Our entrees came with hefty portions of kidney beans and rice and a choice of one other side dish. The macaroni and cheese was creamy enough, but not very cheesy. Fans of Southern-style green beans (cooked until very tender) will love Caribbean Kitchen's; those who prefer their veggies al dente will not.
Hoping for more selections, we went back to the restaurant for lunch. Sure enough, all of the sandwiches were available. A regular urged us to get the fish sub "the way chef Henry likes it." The marinated, grilled boneless lake trout was fine. Even better was getting it on a warm, buttery slab of coco bread instead of a sub roll. (Coco bread is a Jamaican treat that has the taste and consistency of a giant biscuit.)
Between the flaky fish, the sweet bread and the melange of condiments (sliced tomatoes, grilled onions, melted cheese and mayonnaise), there wasn't any need to compromise things by adding any of the sauces arrayed on the counter. There was plenty of flavor already going on.
No visit to any Jamaican establishment would be complete without trying something with jerk spices. We selected Caribbean Kitchen's jerk chicken sandwich and found it exceptional. The secret blend of spices managed to enhance, rather than obliterate, the taste of shredded meat. (And again, substituting coco bread for a roll made a good thing better.)
Our Jamaican patty appetizers did not measure up to any of the entrees; the beef in one tasted fatty, and the shredded vegetables in the other were too overdone to taste like much of anything.
Dessert is not a regular thing at Caribbean Kitchen, which could frustrate a sweet tooth. The curried shrimp and snapper entrees are among several other items that also are not regulars, which frustrated me. Lewis said such items are too expensive to keep on hand unless he's sure he can sell them. He'll accept advance orders, however.
So, if you're together enough to know what you'll want for lunch or dinner tomorrow, Caribbean Kitchen's entire menu is your oyster. And if not, don't worry. You'll still find something good that's far more exotic than that humdrum tuna on wheat.
353 N. Calvert St.
Open: For lunch and dinner Mondays to Fridays; Saturdays for lunch and early dinner
Credit cards: None accepted
Prices: Appetizers $1.10 to $1.75; entrees $3.99 to $10