Cool Jerk

2 Nov

I had been to Jamaica many times for both business and for vacations and was very familiar with the food. I knew it would be hard to replicate my island experiences, but I was curious to see how this one compared when we visited in December of 2002.

Toyamadel
(Now Known As The Food Hut)
1709 Amsterdam Avenue
Hamilton Heights

The place formerly known as Toyamadel

The wind was howling down the northern fringes of Amsterdam Avenue on a frigid early December night. I was waiting for a transfer to the M101 bus from 135th Street to take me ten blocks up to my destination: Toyamadel, the Jamaican eatery I chose for our stouthearted group of diners. But on this night, the stouthearted were diminished in numbers. Charlie took an early exit by having a tennis match (indoors we hope) scheduled on the evening of our meet while Gerry, due to a family commitment was also absent. So when that 101 finally and thankfully arrived and shuttled me the ten blocks north to Toyamadel, only poor Eugene was waiting, cell phone in hand thinking he would be left deserted on that desolate night in the brightly-lit restaurant dining room surrounded by root tonics and coco bread.

Soon Zio appeared, layered in his favorite arctic gear, and then Rick, more urbane in his noir-New York threads. Whatever your attire, you had to keep the coats on here—the heat from the restaurant’s radiator was feeble at best. Toyamadel was not like our other experiences. With a miniscule dining area, the restaurant was mostly take-out. We didn’t waste time making small talk before ordering from the somewhat beleaguered woman behind the sturdy plexiglass shield.

By 7:30 the menu had been remarkably paired down. Many of the desired items typical of Jamaican cuisine had a blue star next to them. This blue star, we were told, signified they were out of that item. The curry goat was gone. The ital vegetable stew was history. The brown stewed chicken, a memory. The red and the blue snapper: finis.  And to Zio’s dismay, they were even out of the stewed cow foot. But that did not mean we didn’t have anything to choose from. There were still both vegetable and chicken patties available and we tried two of each. The jerk chicken was without a blue star so Eugene and Phil quickly ordered it. I went for the stewed codfish, an item from the breakfast menu that had remarkably survived until dinner while Rick decided on the oxtails. The next major decision was the size of our dinner. Behind the shield and near the menu there were displays of the $6, $8, or $10 portions. The empty $10 portion plate just didn’t look like much up there on the display, so, without really any hesitation, we went for the biggest portion.

 

 

The drink menu, though non-alcoholic, was extensive. None of us were courageous enough to sample any of the pricey herbal tonics on the menu such as “Doctor Bird Bitters,” “Sun Dial Wood Root,” “Groundation Root,” “Root Force,”  “Rage Roots,” “SSS Tonic,” and “Irish Moss” that promised, among other things, to help get “Johnny” in the words of Bob Marley, to “get up, and stand up.” The prospect that presented was, considering our motley group, just too frightening to even consider, so we stuck to more familiar fare; lemonade, ginger beer and the Caribbean Christmas specialty, Sorrel, which Eugene sampled and immediately approved of. Months after the sweet bean dessert experience at the Filipino restaurant in Queens, Eugene, it seems, was still having difficulties coming to terms with the fact that what was supposed to be a sweet fruit dessert had cannellini beans in it. Something about those beans had, evidently, struck a primal chord in his subconscious memory. But Eugene’s subconscious was an area we really did not want to explore.

The patties were slipped to us in a brown paper bag under the plastic shield. Topped with Pickapeppa sauce, both the chicken and vegetable varieties were quickly devoured. The $10 dinners came next; the tins in which they were served weighed down with meat, rice and peas, plantains and salad. My stewed codfish was tender and not overly salty. But the combination of rice and peas, yams and plantains—a serious starch overload—was doing me in.

Being the jerk aficionado I am, I had to sample Zio’s chicken. With the possible exception of what I’ve prepared on a Weber grill, back in the days when I had a Weber grill, I’ve not had jerk chicken replicated anywhere near what you can get in Jamaica. Toyamadel, I’m afraid, was no exception. The chicken was tender and the sauce flavorful, though not too fiery. But it just didn’t have that smoky, earthy flavor you get when ordering from an open air jerk stand on the island.

As usual, we over-ordered, the $8 plates would have been more than enough. But that didn’t stop Zio and I from consuming slices of a freshly made carrot cake. By the time we paid, $14 per person, well under our allotted $20, there were even more blue stars next to items. But the customers kept coming. And the door kept opening and closing with freezing regularity.

Toyamadel closed soon after we visited and reopened as “The Food Hut.”  I returned recently and noted that the menu was exactly the same as I remembered nor were any alterations made to the bare bones interior. Even the prices had remarkably held with plates ranging from $6 to $10 dollars.  I tried a veggie and beef patty; ordering at the steam table and then paying and receiving my order under the plexiglass shield just as I had eight years earlier.  Grateful that some things just don’t change, I found a seat at one of the tiny restaurant’s tables and ate the patties.


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