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The defiant one
Jerked-up Jamaican cuisine animates an urban wasteland

If T.S. Eliot had been around to take in the concrete scrap heap of East Colonial Drive and its brutal environs, he might have been prompted to pen a variant of “The Waste Land”: June is the cruelest month, breeding bahia out of the dead land; what are the roots that clutch Highway 50? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

The strip, particularly at the 417 junction, is pretty much devoid of any life, and yet there stands a café in contrarian glory, a simple structure carrying on a culinary tradition that has seen two others like it move or pass on. And the Courtesy Collision gives no shelter, the cricket no relief; and the dry stone no sound of water. Come in under the shadow of the transmission tower and I will show you something different …

Its name, Delightful Island Café, is fittingly defiant. Its interior is awash in yellow – a beaming room overseen by an equally beaming Carron Bartley, as pleasant a proprietress as you’ll meet, and her industrious son. The kitchen is manned by chef Garth, a former resort chef who now plies his craft in the kitchen once commanded by Millie Parker (of Mama Millie’s Jamaican Café). 

After starting with a beef patty ($1.75), served quartered and toothpicked for ease of eating, we knew our dinner would ultimately give us gratification. Sure, the patties weren’t made in-house, but still, we knew. Cooyah wraps ($2.50) amounted to stuffed soft tacos, but the luxuriant, turmeric-infused chicken curry ladled inside had us swooning. Thanks to a liberal pour of Scotch bonnet sauce into the tacos, beads of sweat materialized on my dining partner’s depilated dome. Scotch bonnets, scotty bons, habañeros – anyway you call ’em or cut ’em, these peppers are infernal. Knowingly eating one, at best, allows you to gird the proverbial loins. Unwittingly biting into one, as I did when enjoying the snapper escoveitch ($12), issues a delayed, not an immediate, gustatory siren. When I found myself suddenly gasping for relief in mid-sentence, my sweaty-headed comrade couldn’t help but chuckle. 

A side of rice and peas proved palliative, and we even half-joked that a handful of rice could sop up the perspiration streaming down the napes of our necks. The snapper, it should be noted, was exquisitely fried, and the vinegar-based dressing didn’t overpower the flavor of the fish. Again, beware camouflaged slices of Scotch bonnets amid the julienned carrots. The jerk chicken ($7) could’ve benefited from Mama Millie’s savvy – the fact that it required a dip into a cold (albeit amazing) jerk sauce to get the full flavor made the dish a bit unwieldy. The chicken itself was decent, but the dish as a whole didn’t win me over. But fatty, lush and pliant goat meat was, in a word, delightful, especially when wrapped in a soft Jamaican-style roti ($8).

An on-site bakery is planned in the coming months, which should help the fledgling café build its customer base and further elevate its offerings. Businesses in the area help sustain it, as does Mama Millie (a close friend of Bartley’s) who lends encouragement, guidance and love. So while the Delightful Island Café may sit in the heart of an urban wasteland, its kitchen aroused our palates and we responded, gaily to the hand expert with knives and spices.

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