Thursday, November 08, 2007

Island Flava

What is Jamaican food? If your knowledge of it is limited to jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer, it may be time to check out Junior's Caribbean Bakery & Café in Newport News.

Located at the end of a new strip shopping center, the atmosphere is spacious, clean and inviting.

A full bakery case, loaded with cakes, quick breads and pastries, tempts the eye as soon as you walk in. The walls are bright and cheerful in yellow and green, while tropical plants contribute to the island vibe.

My husband and I walked up to the counter to study the menu. Sandwiches and fish were familiar, while rotis (a type of flatbread used to encase a stew-like filling) and baked patties (flaky hand-held pastries with meat or vegetable fillings) slightly less so.

As there was only one other diner, we had the undivided attention of the young lady who had come out to help us. She was happy to explain what some of the more unusual items were, offering samples to guide us along. After discovering that dine-in meals are available in large only, we opted to get the generous portions in take out containers.

Many of the stew-like foods and sides keep well in a heated serving tray, so it wasn't long before we were tucking into piping hot Jamaican specialties. Dave got the small oxtail ($7.50) with seasoned yellow rice (extra gravy? yes, please!) and mac 'n' cheese.

The oxtail was new to us, but reminiscent of osso bucco. The tender meat slid cleanly off the bone into a rich, dark broth. Carrots, garlic and onions made the stew familiar and comforting, while allspice — also known as Jamaican pimento — gave a complex, peppery warmth. The mac was hearty, little elbows doused in a thick cheese sauce that had obviously been made with love, butter and plenty of extra cheese!

I'd requested the goat roti, but found my box contained the curry goat meal ($7.50/small). I leaned in and inhaled the mingling odors. The goat, tasting like an almost beefy lamb, was so tender it shredded when I poked a fork into it. A golden curry sauce penetrated the meat with a savory, earthy smokiness, and mingled nicely with my side of rice and peas.
I should also note here that the meat was interspersed with bones — not big rib-style bones, but smaller ones. In our litigious society, I'm glad to see that there are still folk who place a high price on taste — bones intensify the flavors, while helping to thicken the cooking liquid.

Both of our meals came with three delicious strips of caramelized plantains. Plantains look something like bananas, but are unpalatable raw. Cooked down slowly, the starches caramelize into sticky, sweet goodness.

I tried out the coconut water ($1.50) to wash this all down. To my surprise, it was almost unbearably sweet! Next time, I'll try the carrot juice, or Junior's own specially blended coffee.

I took a fat slice of the banana walnut bread ($1.50) to go. Sampled the next morning, it had a great scent, but the texture was very dry, remarkably so for a banana bread.

Junior's menu is focused on traditional Caribbean foods. Crafted from family recipes, everything is made in-house in this family-run restaurant. The hearty portions are sure to satisfy, while the price is just right. Step outside the paradigm and dig in!

Junior's Caribbean Bakery & Cafe
13175 Jefferson Avenue, Newport News
Phone: 877-2755
Specialties: Jamaican cuisine
Price range: sandwiches, $4.50-$5.50; weekday lunch special, $4.99; meals, $6-$12; sides, $1.50-$3
Hours: 9 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: not currently
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: quiet
Atmosphere: fast casual
Additional Information: daily lunch special, full-service catering
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)


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