Jamaica fares well at Irie

Those Jamaicans—what a sense of humor. Their ganja is mellow, and the reggae is cool, but who knew about the hot little devil that lurks within the national psyche?

How else can you explain their choice of ackee as the national fruit? The small, red ackee bursts open when ripe. There's not much else to know, except that strange things can happen when you eat ackee before it breaks open.

The term for it is "Jamaican vomiting sickness syndrome." Sure, the habitual vomiting is a real stomach twister, but toss in severe hypoglycemia, and you're talking about one ass-crunch of an illness that even a few tokes of medicinal pot won't dent.

But cook ackee with some salty fish, and you have the national dish.

Jamaican food is best-known for its jerk seasoning, a spicy/sweet marinade sauce that's equivalent to our American barbecue sauce. But to get closer to the heart of their cuisine, you've got to go to ackee and salt fish. As it's served at Irie Jamaican Restaurant, a small storefront joint next to Cypress College, ackee and salt fish looks suspiciously like scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes. Ackee flesh is yellow and has the texture and mellow flavor of squash. It jibes perfectly with the salty rock cod, which tastes suspiciously like anchovy.

Ackee and salt fish is not the most memorable Jamaican cooking, but it's interesting—and it gets better and better as you eat more and more of it. As the signature dish at Irie Jamaican Restaurant, ackee and salt fish is the one dish you must try, but you'd be remiss if you passed on the other fine dishes on later visits.

Fans of Irie rave about the oxtails, but I like their version of jerk chicken better. A boned breast of chicken is marinated and baked with this gooey red sauce, meaning that its tangy flavor is cooked into the meat, giving the chicken a slightly crisp texture. This is how jerk chicken should be, and Irie's version is among the best I've tried.

Irie is way mom-and-pop, with the requisite Bob Marley all over the place—there are six pictures of him on the walls, and his music plays nonstop. The menu doesn't embellish on the interior design. Dinner choices are listed as oxtail, cowfoot, curry goat, stew pea and rice. You can get steamed fish, chicken and bread, or fried dumpling and meat. Bun and cheese is one of the appetizers.

Because Irie is small, not everything on the menu is available if you come on a slow night; it's like coming home, except that at this home, each dinner comes with a tasty pile of beans and rice and fried plantains. You also get salad, and your choice of dressing comes in a plastic Kraft bottle that's brought with your meal.

But what's lacking in extravagance is made up for with low prices. Nothing costs more than $10, and most of the dinners cost $5 or $6.

Irie Jamaican Restaurant is one of those unknown restaurants that you should be glad exists in Orange County, and it's a hell of a lot better than Jamaican vomiting sickness syndrome. Those Jamaicans.

Irie Jamaican Restaurant, located at 9062 Valley View St., Cypress, is open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Dinner for two, $7-$10. Nix on the booze. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.

 
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