The Jerk Pit offers classic Jamaican dishes with a homemade touch. 

Spicy Island Fare

Ahhhhh, Jamaica. Sugary white beaches, aquamarine waters, Bo Derek braids and barefoot good times. But wait: The island offers culinary pleasures, too, and the good news is that you don't have to buy a plane ticket to enjoy them.

Spicy jerk chicken, curried goat, cool, fruity drinks and other Caribbean specialties can be had Monday through Saturday at The Jerk Pit, a 9-month-old, family-managed restaurant located near the Science Museum of Virginia. This clean, bright little place is a real find; it's great for a casual lunch or for picking up a home-cooked dinner. An added plus is that there are plenty of free, two-hour parking spaces right in front.

Step inside and you're likely to be welcomed by one of the owners, Henry Davis, a former math teacher who has lived in Richmond with his wife, Valerie, for 17 years. Henry clearly enjoys his post, placing orders and helping serve up the aromatic, homemade fare prepared by his mother-in-law, Ethline Cardwell.

The seating is casual (read: stools and a counter), and the clientele is a mix of students, office workers and homesick islanders with a hankering for Mrs. Cardwell's fragrant rice and peas. "We have lots of regular customers, but we also serve many tourists," says Henry. "And not long ago we fed a busload of musicians from New Orleans. They said ours was the best food they'd had since they left home!"

Nearly everything at the Jerk Pit is made to order, so bring a newspaper or book and be prepared to wait. (By waiting, I mean about five to 15 minutes, depending on what and how much you order). This is not McDonald's; Mrs. Cardwell will grill your chicken perfectly and will season your ribs just so. "No one ever complains about the wait," says Henry. "They know they're getting something fresh and tasty." In a hurry? Opt for the warm, precooked savory pastries (Henry calls them patties); eaten out of hand, they're the perfect size for a light lunch or snack. Choose from chicken, beef or veggie ($1.25 to $1.50).

There are daily specials ($6.99 to $10.99) typical of the Jamaican table: braised oxtails, red snapper seasoned with garlic and thyme, curried goat and curried chicken. Curry? What's up with the curry? "There is a sizeable Indian population in Jamaica, so curry has become quite popular on the island," explains Henry. No matter what you order, servings are generous; those with moderate appetites will go home with a doggy bag and can reheat leftovers for dinner. Vegetarians can opt for jerk tempeh served with house dipping sauce. (I'm a big fan of tempeh and found this dish to be nicely glazed and beautifully seasoned, but a bit dense and heavy.)

A section called Lite Fare includes Mango Walk Salad ($6.49), a melange of spicy curried chicken on a bed of greens topped with mango chutney and homemade vinaigrette. Also in the lite category is The Pit Picket: spicy, grilled chicken in a pita pocket with a side of homemade potato salad ($4.59). There are also chicken, shrimp, veggie or combo kebabs ($5.99 to $7.49), served over seasoned rice. Other regional specialties include jerk chicken ($3.99 to 7.49) or succulent jerk pork ($3.99 to $6.99). One of my favorite offerings is the Combo Caribe, which includes your choice of jerk chicken or jerk pork, with rice and peas, steamed vegetables and a Jamaican soda ($7.49). If you're not a fan of spicy food, go for The Maroon Melt ($5.59), a hefty, comforting sandwich consisting of grilled chicken and melted cheese on a soft, Jamaican-style bun called coco bread.

Although the restaurant occupies the space of a former beer joint, there are no alcoholic beverages served at The Jerk Pit. Don't miss out on a cool, homemade boonoonoonous (a mix of pineapple, mango, banana, and guava juice) or one of the Jamaican-inspired beverages: spicy ginger beer, grapefruit soda, orange-kiwi-passion-fruit juice, or slightly sweet, very refreshing coconut water.

For dessert, try the moist pineapple-coconut cake ($1.25), or if you like banana bread, give theirs a try; it's fairly straightforward and not too sweet. From time to time, homemade plantain tart is offered, and it sells "very, very quickly," says Henry. I'll skip the tart — I prefer my plantains fried and sprinkled with salt — but I plan to return for more of Mrs. Cardwell's lovingly prepared dishes — and for a big dose of Henry Davis' warmth and hospitality.


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