Jerk chicken at the Caribbean Cafe is a timely taste of the tropics

March 25, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Sorry. Baltimoreans aren't going to take to curried goat in record numbers. And the vote is still out on oxtail stew, even with lima beans.

But that doesn't mean you should avoid Paulette Merrills' Caribbean Cafe. Especially not this time of year, when the weather might be nice one day and frightful the next. You may need to be on island time for a while. White sand . . . hot sun . . . blue skies . . .

The Caribbean Cafe, which is basically a carryout, will give you something of the flavor of the tropics. Not many people are going to be eating in, but you can sit at one of the three tables if you're willing to serve yourself. Owner/chef Paulette Merrills was doing it all the night we ate there -- answering the phone for the carryout orders, cooking the food, taking care of three toddlers underfoot. It was quite a performance.

Mrs. Merrills is a charmer. Because of her you have to like this place, even though the food is pretty uneven. I'm giving it two-and-a-half stars for the meal, and an extra half for general niceness of the chef. Sit back, order a plate of jerk chicken with red beans and rice on the side and maybe some fried plantain. Look up and admire the ornate Federal Hill ceiling with its classical motifs (grapevines and cherubs), an interesting contrast to the room's island grasses and Jamaican art. Enjoy the reggae music and walk out with change from your ten.

The jerk chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, juicy and smoky and not that spicy until suddenly you realize tears are running down your cheeks. It comes with a huge mound of rice, a few red beans, and a kind of island slaw made with green and purple cabbage. The thin slices of fried plantain (a banana-like fruit) are crisp-edged, good and greasy, just what you need to soak up the spicy heat of the chicken.

The menu doesn't reflect what Mrs. Merrills actually cooks on any given night. You start with Jamaican beef patties (spicy ground meat wrapped in flaky pastry) or nothing. Wash them down with ginger beer, but stay away from the Kola champagne, a soft drink that tastes like bubble gum.

A vegetable stew sounded appealing, but it turned out to be pretty bland, with limas, homemade dumplings, big chunks of celery and mixed peas and carrots, all in a white sauce.

As for seafood, I've heard the whole red snapper is fabulous, but you need to call and order it a half-hour ahead of time. (We didn't realize.) The Caribbean Cafe is right across from the Cross Street Market; there's no reason the fish shouldn't be exceptionally fresh.

No bread pudding, carrot cake, sweet potato pone or fruit and wine cake for dessert -- in spite of what it said on the menu. But the 5-year-old who was with us looked so forlorn at the thought of no dessert that Mrs. Merrills gave her a slice of Jamaican bun (a kind of ginger cake with raisins) and wouldn't let us pay for it.

Caribbean Cafe

Where: 48 E. Cross St.

Hours: Monday to Friday, noon-9 p.m., Saturday, 1 p.m.-10 p.m., Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: No

Features: Caribbean food

Non-smoking section? No

Call: (410) 783-0463

Prices: $7-$9.50

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