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Island Delight dishes authentic Jamaican fare on the east side

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Plantains and drinks lend sweetness. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Plantains and drinks lend sweetness.

Situated next to Arharn Thai and You-Ka Cafe, Island Delight helps a little strip mall off of Powers Boulevard stand as a bona fide bright spot for culinary diversity. Even when there's a foot of snow outside, this place sells the idea of a tin-roof shack on a Port Antonio beach. Make no mistake: Owner Carlene Francis is not cooking gussied-up, gentrified takes on the food she grew up with in Savanna-la-Mar. She's serving Jamaican food the way Mom made it.

That's noteworthy because the food does more than fill and nourish. It tells the story of the island that produced it, a story of slavery and exploitation that stretches from the plantations of the 17th century to the resort-run land-grabs surrounding the end of British rule in 1962. The famous jerk spice dates back to the indigenous Taíno and Arawak people. Ackee and saltfish, a signature dish, blends a fruit brought over from Africa during the slave trade with cheap, long-lasting preserved cod. And oxtails are standard in any culinary tradition by and for poor, working people, wherever cattle roam.

Both of those items bolster Island Delight's menu, which rates filling, generously portioned, a little cumbersome and unrefined, but honest and, for the most part, quite satisfying. Start with a patty — a Jamaican hand pie filled with seasoned beef in a yolk-yellow crust. Though they're a little dry, the filling holds nice spice, and for $3.20, they're of a good size, too.

For entrées, most plates (boxes, really, as everything comes in foam) land in the $11 to $13 range. Each one comes with red beans and rice, fried plantains, and a choice of American-style potato salad or buttery steamed veg — julienned cabbage, carrots and onions. The red beans and rice is not the classic Louisiana dish, but simply cooked red beans in steamed rice. If all this sounds like it resembles a Chinese takeout combo, well, that's not far off. The curry shrimp aren't much different than you'd get at an average Chinese place: a skosh overcooked, mildly spiced, flavorful but nothing to scare off a Midwesterner.

Actually, Midwesterners might readily take to the brown stew chicken, served in a rich sauce with big carrot slices. The chicken comprises cheaper cuts — on the upside, rich and flavorful, but on the downside, diners will fight bone and gristle to score every bit of meat. To a lesser extent, that's also true of the jerk chicken, spiced to order. Between that spicing and the coarser-cut presentation, it out-guns the brown stew.

Those aforementioned oxtails arrive rich and fatty, intensely flavored in their sauce, though like the chicken, bones abound. While I'm a little disappointed there's no scotch bonnet heat in the ackee and saltfish, the combination of creamy with savory fishiness both interests and satisfies, strong but not unpleasant. I'm reminded of good scrambled eggs with fish sauce, with a little more texture from the cod.

Considering the mound of beans and rice, these dishes make for two decent meals. Avoid the imported sodas — we try a peanut flavor and barley-ginger — unless nearly doubling your daily recommended intake of sugar in one go sounds fun. All told, maybe this isn't the place to feed out-of-town guests. But Francis dishes hearty, nourishing food by and for working folks, true to form, all with a warm, welcoming attitude.

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