a real review

Montego Bay
1235 SW Jefferson St Portland,
Oregon, 503-228-1277

I don’t know why, but at some point this week I got it through my thick skull that Jamaican food was exactly what I needed. I’m not sure why, for I had little previous experience beyond being admonished by various trustafarians for not eating ‘ital’ enough food. That and I can make a mean Jerk Spice, and a good friend of mine has spent a great deal of time taking bong rips and raving on and on about these “patties,” which, apparently, are quite Ital.

I’ll drop some culinary esoterica on you: In the case of Jamaica, the Arawak people (you know, the ones that lived there before the white devil came) have had a small but lasting effect on the culinary world. Allspice berries are native to the Caribbean area, and when the first European pirates came to the region, the natives taught them that Allspice preserved meat incredibly effectively. The Arawak word for the berries was Bucan, which led to the pirates’ being tagged Bucaneers.

Native spices aside, very little of Jamaican/pan-Caribbean cuisine has native ties. Jamaican food is a combination of all of those foreign cultures that took over in the 17th century. There are plantains and curries, signs of African influences, and there are yeasted breads and tarts, which don’t get much more European. These disparate culinary worlds make for exotic dishes, and Montego Bay, a new Jamaican restaurant on the corner of 13th and Jefferson, tries valiantly to give the diner a full picture of Jamaican Cuisine. In respect to the food, they have much success, with respect to service, well; I’ll get to that.

Montego Bay has the paint job and cultural kitsch one would expect. I respect the desire to create pleasing environs, but a palm frond decorated bar caused flashbacks of the bar fight in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The menu had appetizers, breads, sides and entrees divided into the standard beef/chicken/seafood subcategories. My dining partners and I attempted to order a cross-section of the menu, and we dutifully ordered things from all corners. I recommend the rice dishes; none of us could raise the gumption to order a pasta dish from a not-so-wheat based culture. The Chicken Curry was well balanced and a little overdone, but tasty; the shrimp in the shrimp rice were of the 100-150 range (#shrimp per pound) and looked suspiciously, um, processed. I ordered a side of calaloo, which is a type of dark leafy green. The greens had been cooked for a long time with mild spices, onions and sweet peppers and were spectacularly tender. My dining mates had come for the patties so we ordered on the combination plate as an appetizer. They came, conveniently labeled with a little food dye to mark beef/chicken/veggie, after we had our main courses. Tardiness aside, these ‘patties,’ which are essentially empanadas, or if that doesn’t explain it, half-moon shaped pockets of filling surrounded by a harder-than-usual pastry dough, baked then griddle cooked. I recommend against ordering bread: “hardough bread” is white bread. Yes it is fresh, and pretty good, but it is still just plain ol’ Pullman bread.

Our waitress apologized the moment we walked in the door. She was the only person working, she said, so everything would be a little slow. I looked around, and saw 5 full tables. 2 and 4 tops. Egad, I thought, if she can’t handle this few people, why is she a waitress? Anyway, the service sucked. Badly. This waitress played the ‘man’ card (“men can never make up their minds”) when we were ordering, and then later plopped the bill right in front of me. I was paying, and that is a bias that usually pisses off the women at the table more than me, but after the man thing, I was a little miffed. I was also disappointed that I couldn’t order any drink that came in a coconut.

Update: Service has improved dramatically, as has the inventory of fru-fru drinks, one of which comes in a coconut. They have certainly blossomed into a great restaurant.