Island Hut

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Island Hut  photo

Editorial Review

Tom Sietsema wrote about Island Hut for a Wednesday, May 25 First Bite column,

As an IT specialist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gloria Saint knows something about heat. But it's at the Jamaican native's side job in Wheaton - the Island Hut restaurant - that the general public can most appreciate her skill set.

Get the jerk chicken, in other words.

Saint heads up the family affair, which replaced a former pupusa place in March and includes son Troy Johnson, daughter LaChelle Donaldson and a distant cousin, Osbourne Lynch, who left Jamaica to helm the kitchen when Saint returned to her full-time position at the NRC in April.

Donaldson came up with the name before the family found a location, which happens to be an old diner with about 20 seats: "so suiting," she says, "because it's so small." Some strategically placed straw outside reinforces the hut designation.

There are good things to be found in this small package, including that signature chicken, seasoned with a blend of thyme, onions and Scotch bonnet peppers. It's about as succulent as I've had the dish since the standard-bearer Fish, Wings & Tings shuttered in Adams Morgan. Saint says she pierces the skin of the bird as it cooks over charcoal to infuse the flesh with that spicy heat.

The entree's equal is goat, neatly trimmed of its fatty flaps and zesty with garlic, pepper, curry powder and more. Coleslaw, stinging with vinegar and lemon juice, and a scoop of soothing rice and peas broaden the appeal of these (plastic) plates. And any meal is better with a glass of scarlet-colored sorrel, which is made here and doesn't stint on the cinnamon or ginger. Only the fried kingfish, dry from overcooking, has been a disappointment.

LaChelle Donaldson bakes the cakes (pineapple upside-down, mandarin orange, apple-spice) that sell for $2 a slice. Her mother, who is interested in opening a second place offering a more refined version of her island cooking, specializes in a Jamaican wedding tradition that shouldn't be sold to anyone under 21.

Known as black cake, Saint explains, the dessert is powered by rum.