There’s nothing safe or boring about Jamaican Me Hungry. Long white leather banquettes make an L on two sides of the room, and just a half-dozen tables are pushed into the small space. The black tabletops are pre-set with square red chargers with upturned corners and tall-stemmed water glasses with bright red napkins folded in their bowls. Thousands of red and green dots of light swirl across the ceiling and over the table tops, projected from a hidden laser tucked away at the base of the plastic palm tree in the corner. If ever there was a decor you would describe as “funky,” this is it, though it’s also ambitiously fancy at the same time. Vivid yellow walls are accented with red curtains and lamps.
The menu is as tiny as the room — just a single small card with a half-dozen options. The selection can vary by day, but a typical one includes herb-marinated chicken stewed in a brown sauce ($15), jerk chicken ($16), and oxtails marinated with peppers, onions, and spices and cooked with butter beans ($25). A whole red snapper ($26) is marinated with herbs, peppers, and spices and steamed to order. All come with your choice of soup or salad as well as a plate of rice and peas accented with vegetables and plantains.
Take the soup over the salad. The latter is a rather ordinary blend of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and carrot strips, though the tangy Vidalia onion dressing is a nice touch. The soup, on the other hand, is a slow-simmered treat. The square white bowl holds a savory yellowish-brown broth with just a hint of spicy heat, and it brims with small butterflied shrimp, chunks of potatoes and carrots, and plenty of “spinners” — long, thin dumplings rolled by hand into cylinders and simmered in the soup until they are soft but slightly chewy.
The pineapple jerk shrimp ($18) comes in a light brown sauce that’s studded with pieces of onion and pepper. Our waiter warned us it would be hot, but the heat isn’t anything approaching a daredevil pitch, just a warm, lingering spiciness that sneaks in on the back of the palate and creates a pleasant warm glow. Hidden away in the broth are big chunks of pineapple, which create a nice sweet contrast against the peppery heat.
Most notable, though, is the curry goat ($23), a staple of Jamaican cuisine. Big chunks of goat meat, still on the bone, are slow simmered until meltingly tender, and the long cooking creates a broth that is deep and rich with the complex layering of spices from the curry.
The centerpiece of each meal is the large square plate of rice and peas placed in the center of your red charger. A big dome of rice is speckled with black beans and fragrant with spices and a touch of coconut sweetness. Four long slices of tasty grilled plantain are positioned decoratively across the sides. A square dish of meat is placed off on the side along with a similar dish of steamed cabbage that’s tossed with sliced carrots and peppers and tinged yellow with curry.
For drinks, there’s a selection of a dozen imported Jamaican juices and soda, which run the gamut from sorrel and sweet coconut water to Kola Champagne and grapefruit-flavored Ting.
The food is all handmade from scratch, and it’s as authentic as it gets. Owner Saviya Smith hails from Jamaica, and her cooking takes the signature flavors of her native cuisine — sweetness and spice — and mingles them in a pleasing melody.
While Jamaican Me Hungry has a lot going for it on the culinary front, it seems faced with more than a few commercial challenges. The restaurant’s punny name, for starters, is a misfit. For me, at least, it suggests some sort of cheesy tourist trap that would try to move jerk-chicken nachos and loads of Red Stripe in a tacky, island-themed joint. Anyone expecting to find a “hey mon” version of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. would be sorely disappointed (and they would deserve to be so).
The restaurant is located just off the Market downtown, which should be a promising spot, but the small storefront (the former home of Lucas Belgian Chocolates) is tucked half a block down State Street, and it’s not until you’re right up in front of it that you can see it’s a restaurant. With the bold white leather banquettes and the elegantly set tables on the one hand, and reggae bumping from the flat screens and the spinning constellation of laser lights on the other, it’s part fine-dining café, part disco.
What that really means is that Jamaican Me Hungry marches to the beat of its own drummer, and it’s a refreshingly genuine beat. I encourage anyone who’s a little adventurous and looking to sample the authentic cuisine of Jamaica to make the effort to track it down. It’s the real deal.