"Come back to Jamaica," urge those seductive television ads. It's a nice idea, but what if you don't happen to have a few hundred loose bucks for the airline tickets?
Go to Jamaica Joe, where you can mingle with Jamaicans, eat Jamaican food and get plenty of change from a $10 bill. There's carry-out, too, so you can have your vicarious Jamaican vacation in your own dining room if you'd rather.
This is a decidedly unpretentious restaurant, with a luncheonette counter, leatherette booths, fluorescent lights and the menu posted behind the counter. But, it has real dishes and glasses, putting it a step above those carry-outs where the eating utensils are plastic.
The menu choices here are limited -- don't expect fresh fruits or vegetables or much variety -- but what's served is uniformly excellent.
To start, don't overlook the good Jamaican beers -- a lager called Red Stripe that will remind you of the hops-laced Heineken, and a dark, viscous brew called Dragon stout that's a close stand-in for Guinness stout (and at $1.75, is a good buy). Order both and mix them half-and-half, English style.
There are two curried dishes, chicken and goat, both in a sauce that's marvelous but has little connection with the Indian and Southeast Asian curries with which you're probably familiar.
This curry sauce, made with diced potatoes and carrots, is smoother, milder, less sharp and less complex than its Eastern counterparts, and without the dominant presence of cumin. If you're new to Caribbean cooking, you may want to have it with the chicken, the meat nicely moist, fresh-tasting, and delectably infused with the sauce's flavors. The goat is good, too, tender and delicately flavored, but it tends to be somewhat bony and fatty.
Either of the curries can be had with rice and beans, or even better, as roti -- that is, wrapped inside a tender wheat pancake and eaten like moo shi pork (but not quite as easily, since there are bones to contend with).
The second major sauce here, dark, rich, peppery and aromatic with anise, comes with two irresistible dishes called jerk chicken and jerk pork. The chicken is moist and the pork crusty and tender.
Fish, generally croaker, has been very fresh. It's prepared two ways, both worth trying: fried in a light batter so it's delicate, moist and crisp-skinned, or "escovitchied" -- fried and then served in a sharp, vinegary sauce with onions.
All the dishes come with fried banana and with rice and beans that are good enough to eat by themselves, the rice tender yet firm-grained and flavored with what tastes like a touch of coconut. And on the side are bottles of Jamaican pepper sauces hot enough to pop your eyes. One of them is actually labeled with the warning "Keep Out of the Reach of Children."
There's generally one dessert, a dense sweet potato pudding that's flavored with almond extract, and is very good.