This Hole-In-The-Wall Life
Photo by John PickelleIn Orange County's hole-in-the-wall galaxy, Jamaican Cuisine Experience is the holiest-in-the-wall. A flimsy plastic banner hung below an unrelated marquee demarcates its existence inside the Liquor Deli, a nondescript hooch hawker in strip-mall Tustin otherwise notable for its all-fetishes array of porno mags. The entirety of the restaurant occupies a long counter within the mart, its sole adornment a Jamaican flag emblazoned with Bob Marley hanging proudly behind the dry-erase menu. A rickety table is the only seating option at Jamaican Cuisine Experience, situated between an ice cream freezer and a soda holder. It also happens to be in the approximate middle of the Liquor Mart; customers waiting for their to-go lunch must rub shoulders with hurried blue-collar types barking for cigarettes and schoolchildren from the nearby elementary school barging in for their daily dose of sugar.
True to the hole-in-the-wall ontology, Jamaican Cuisine Experience trumps its grimy settings, offering chicken, goat and fish selections heavy on the stomach but delightfully piquant to the palate. The jerk chicken is a fine barbequed bird, the namesake marinade rub a bit drier than usual but still harboring an enchanting burn. The curried goat never disappoints; the tender, sinewy flesh slips off supporting bones as if it were jelly. An accompanying green curry accentuates the goat's natural buttery savor, and the spice zings more than torches in the tradition of Caribbean curries. This same subtle sear also rises to prominence in the jerk salmon and red snapper dinners, each diced with snappy onions and tomatoes, good stuff all. You can't taste anything more authentically Jamaican outside of a Haile Sellassie cookie.
All meals in this little slice of Kingston come prepared as simply as their environs—the container a sturdy Styrofoam carton, a side of steamed peppered cabbage constituting the greenery, a lumpy hill of earthy red beans and coconut milk-simmered rice, and a toasted plantain that's marshmallow-soft and sweet. The requisite chunk of fried corn festival—a type of bread reminiscent of hush puppies in their greasy beauty—comes separately but is worth the extra Jefferson. And do order a beef patty, a flaky saffron-toned turnover with a type of ground-beef jam in the center that will prove to be the only Jamaican narcotic you'll ever need.
Jamaican Cuisine Experience, 14211 Red Hill Ave. (within the Liquor Deli), Tustin, (714) 731-0473.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.