When moody weather makes you wish for Jamaica's tranquil blue skies and scented breezes, head to Montego Bay immediately. Named for a popular tourist town on the Caribbean island's northwest coast, this new Portland eatery has breathed life into the space formerly occupied by the Western Culinary Institute's Chef's Corner Cafe at Southwest 13th Avenue and Jefferson Street.
The restaurant's two rooms are painted and bedraped in vivid reds and yellows, and decked with shlocky Jamaican souvenirs. An all-reggae-all-the-time soundtrack blasts from the speakers in the lounge (which rocks with impromptu dance parties on weekend nights). Extra Pick-a-Peppa sauce on that? You got it. All this might remind you of a theme park, if the food weren't delicious, generous, and as authentic as your best Bob Marley bootleg.
Master chef Annie McCloud has plenty of street cred. She spent her childhood near Port Antonio, Jamaica, and counts among her Maroon ancestors, slaves who hid in Jamaica's mountains to escape their English captors. Members of her extended family still keep a coffee plantation in the Cooper's Hill area, growing coveted Jamaican Blue Mountain beans. Before moving to Portland in 1995, McCloud opened a Jamaican restaurant in New York and another in Los Angeles.
Being a bona fide native and seasoned chef helps when it comes to running a Jamaican restaurant, but so does the use of ginger and garlic seasonings to flavor a menu filled with island delights: fresh seafood, tropical fruits, starchy vegetables like yucca and sweet potatoes, and copious quantities of hot red pepper (including the devilish Scotch Bonnet--or habanero--chile). Because Jamaican cooking clusters around a few key ingredients, variety at Montego Bay comes from preparation: Chicken, for example, shows up curried, roasted, on pasta, with waffles, etc.
Meals begin with a warm basket of toto bread--wonderfully soft flatbread dusted with toasted coconut. For beverages, there are Red Stripe beer and a vivid pink rum punch, but you should consider ordering a fruit drink, like the bracing pineapple-ginger juice ($3.50) or a jackfruit smoothie, made from a tropical fruit that's a relative of the breadfruit and fig.
The appetizers, a savory mix of fritters, hand pies and finger food, are packed with complex, peppery flavors. The Jamaican patties ($5) are flaky turnovers filled with spicy shredded beef, chicken or callaloo, a spinach-based vegetable slurry that's also available as a side dish. Don't be thrown off by the daubs of food coloring on the crust--they denote what filling is inside. The fish fritters ($6) are chewy, cornmeal-battered patties with a surprisingly light flavor, especially tasty when doused in Scotch Bonnet ketchup. Also try the Ocho Rios crab cakes ($7.25), which blend crabmeat with garlic and spices and are served with chunky mango-ginger chutney.
Palm tree icons on the menu indicate house specialties, the standout of which is the Boston Beach jerk chicken ($9.75 lunch, $13.95 dinner), with meat marinated in a soy-based sauce spiked with thyme, garlic, allspice and hot pepper. Jerking is a traditional cooking technique in Jamaica, which involves cooking seasoned meat underground (the practice was perfected by Maroons seeking to conceal their cooking smoke from the English). The care lavished on preparation pays off in the tenderness and smoky taste of the heavily basted, barbecue-dark chicken pieces, served with the meat literally slipping off the bone. Pork and shrimp entrees are also available with jerk flavoring ($13.95, $13.50 respectively), with similarly great results.
Another authentic Jamaican dish is the saltfish ($15), a hash of flaked salt cod, sautéed tomatoes, onions and peppers mixed with crumbled ackee, a bright red tropical fruit with a texture akin to scrambled eggs. The mild, salty flavor and springy texture of the saltfish mingles nicely with the melt-in-your-mouth ackee.
Most entrees, are served with native gunga peas and either white or brown rice, a sautéed cabbage slaw, and boiled banana or plantain. Go for the sweet, molten plantain slices, cut on the diagonal and broiled in cinnamon.
With a belly full of poultry and the buzz of Scotch Bonnet on your tongue, dessert may seem superfluous. But McCloud's Montego Bay kitchen serves some rock-'em-sock-'em sweets, including coconut drops ($3), chunks of fresh coconut bound together by a sticky-sweet, ginger- and sesame-flecked glaze. Though you might only be able to manage one bite after your meal, this is the perfect treat to smuggle into a movie later. And given Jamaica's history, a little smuggling might be just the thing.
1239 SW Jefferson St., 228-1277. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $-$$ Inexpensive to Moderate.
Picks: Jamaican patties--flaky turnovers filled with spicy meat or spinach; Ocho Rios crab cakes, served with mango-ginger chutney; Boston Beach jerk chicken; saltfish and ackee; for dessert, coconut drops.
Executive chef Opel Bailey, a Jamaican who was a cruise-ship chef, moved to Portland four months ago.All this might seem like a theme park, if the food weren't delicious, generous, and as authentic as your best Bob Marley bootleg.