Unforgettable Flavors: A Jamaican cafe for the less trendy apartment dweller


The spiced tilapia sandwich at Unforgettable Flavors, a Jamaican restaurant in College Park. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

This isn’t the start of a joke: Three hopeful diners walk into Unforgettable Flavors, two of them tentative and mute. The third is bragging about this cafe, buried in a massive apartment complex in College Park. It’s a Jamaican eatery, the chatty one explains, that has pasta on the menu, too! All three leave without ordering, which is when I realize what just happened.

A leasing manager at Seven Springs Apartments just used Unforgettable Flavors as tenant bait on a young couple. It’s a smart play: If I lived there, I’d consider the joint my second dining room.

To those who don’t call the colorless high-rise canyons of Seven Springs home, Unforgettable Flavors can be tricky to locate. You have to pull into the compound and drive a short distance past the Island Club on the left. On your right, at the base of a multi-story dwelling, lies this Jamaican operation, just below ground level. The first time I tried to find it, I essentially took a self-guided tour of Seven Springs.

It was the aroma that ultimately led me to Unforgettable Flavors, as if the smoke from chef Neville Nugent’s charcoal had grabbed me by the throat and marched me to its source. Once inside the cafe, I ran straight into a wall of human kindness. The staff here is the friendliest, most attentive crew I’ve ever encountered outside a restaurant with food critic photos taped up in the kitchen.

The hospitality doesn’t feel forced. It feels like an authentic export from Jamaica, where the heat, the music and the sheer inescapability (mountains behind you, ocean in front) have nurtured this unique combination of aggression and affability (affagression?). But it also may be an operational philosophy: Nugent mentions that his little subterranean spot, now with mango-colored walls and reggae on the sound system, has already burned through a couple of businesses. He’s not about to lose customers to rudeness.

A Jamaican native, Nugent is nothing if not savvy. For an entire year, the chef prepared his jerk chickens at home and transported the specimens to the restaurant. “It was costing too much in gas,” Nugent says. So he improvised a technique at his Seven Springs location, where he can’t operate a jerk pit outdoors. Instead, he prepares charcoal outside until it reaches a gray, low-grade burn, then sprays the coals with a beer mixture to cool them. He dumps the smoldering charcoal in a hotel pan, places a grate over it and arranges his marinated chicken atop the grate. The whole thing slides right into an oven.

It’s an ingenious technique that takes “baked” jerk chicken — that oxymoronic approach so common in the Washington market — and gives it a taste of real smoke. Granted, it’s a small taste, nothing as intensely woodsy as the birds at Just Jerk, where the grill continuously belches out smoke. But if my two different orders of jerk chicken lacked a certain grill savor, they packed plenty of other aromatics and spice, generating a Scotch-bonnet radiance and a depth of flavor that lingered long after the blackened bird parts had disappeared.

The same chicken was used to good effect in Nugent’s “rasta pasta,” a plate of multi-colored, mostly overcooked rotini mixed with meaty chunks of jerk poultry and some sweet little surprises, such as soft sticks of carrot or caramelized strands of onion. The mashup — a Jamaican-Italian fusion, as colorful as a Volkswagen full of clowns — was slicked with a coconut cream sauce and dusted with Parm. It was as lively and unpredictable as a 3-year-old boy with a stick.

Many of Nugent’s dishes get the jerk treatment, some better than others. The jerk burger, a double stack of griddled patties with a translucent square of American cheese hugging each, would have been a slam dunk — had I ordered it at Five Guys. The promised Jamaican seasoning was either AWOL or slid by my palate faster than Usain Bolt. The jerk chicken burger proved far more satisfying and mysterious. The blackened slab sported the vaguely trapezoidal shape of breast meat, but went down like juicy thigh meat, all moisture, aroma and heat. Turns out Nugent grinds both breasts and thighs before forming the meat into a patty, which then is concealed under a blanket of American cheese.

Heat levels can be customized to fit your tolerance, from mild to “unbearable.” In the manliest voice I could summon, I told the counterman to dial up the heat on my tilapia sandwich, but the fillets leaned more mild, which presumably undercut the intended sweet/spicy effect of the fish stuffed between slices of coco bread. Intentions aside, I still demolished the thing, a reminder that mistakes can be delicious, too. The curry chicken, with neatly diced carrots and potatoes, also played down the spice, a wallflower of a dish that proved surprisingly engaging.

Unforgettable Flavors doesn’t deal in fast food; you will wait for your order, which is why many call in advance. But time equals attention, which the kitchen pays to its full menu, down to the appetizers (the pillowy tilapia nuggets with jerk-ranch sauce are a pleasure both familiar and utterly foreign), sides (the curry cabbage deals in crunch and incense) and house-made fruit smoothies (which will suppress any fire that may ignite). Even the chef’s mixed-greens side salad, layered with red-veined beet leaves, clues you into something important here:

Though located at the base of an aging apartment complex, Unforgettable Flavors takes its mission as seriously as any chef-driven restaurant tucked into the ground floor of a downtown luxury condo, where fashion means as much as the food.

Unforgettable Flavors

9348 Cherry Hill Rd., College Park.
301-345-2089. www.unforgettableflavors.com.

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday-Monday.

Nearest Metro: College Park, with a 3.7-mile trip to the restaurant.

Prices: Entrees, $5.99-$15.95.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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