With its bright yellow, green and black exterior, the Palace of Jamaica — on the south end of the Washington Square downtown business district — is difficult to miss.
If the vibrant hues don’t catch your eye, perhaps the denizens of the liquor store next door will. When we pulled up, a disgruntled customer promised arson the next time he was treated so shabbily. One doesn’t expect that kind of energetic exchange a few blocks north, at least not until last call.
The colors of the Jamaican flag beckon diners, and I came prepared. Before dining, I chatted up a friend who was born and lived in Jamaica for a time. She told me about the ins and outs of Jamaican cuisine, and, a few months prior, even brought me the national dish, ackee and saltfish — an acquired taste.
We went for lunch, but missed the lunch menu (which is essentially slightly smaller portions for a few items) by the time we arrived, just before 2 p.m. I still went with the oxtail, although begrudgingly — the dish cost $11. Why so much, I wondered. Palace of Jamaica isn’t full service, and, in fact, it advertises itself as takeout. By the time I realized the garbage smell that kept wafting through the air was from an unemptied can a few feet away inside the little restaurant, I wish I had taken the menu´s advice to ask for my meal to go.
As we sat waiting for our meals, I took stock of the environment. Posters of Bob Marley, Barack Obama and other inspirational leaders filled the wall. Dirty bamboo place mats attempted to further the tropical décor. A stack of CDs sat near a stereo in the front window, inviting anyone who enjoys lyrics that would make you grandmother blush.
The owner and cook took our order and answered questions like, “what is escovietched (sic) fish?” with vague responses like, “it’s the way it’s cooked.” We wanted to try the escoveitched fish but passed for two reasons: It would take around an hour to cook, and there was a mysterious question mark residing where the price of the dish should have appeared.
In any event, the oxtail was tasty. The little star-shaped bones of the meat are not something you’ll experience at many restaurants in town, and the meat, though a bit fatty (and therefore delicious) and hard to extract from the nooks of the bone, is covered with what seemed to me to be a mild kind of barbecue.
The jerk chicken was even better. Real pieces of chicken are covered with a jerk sauce we were warned was spicy. It did have mild heat, but the flavors, a mixture of spices without any one dominating the others, are what made the dish.
The sides for our meals were the same. Mixed vegetables — cauliflower, broccoli, carrots — looked and tasted like they were cooked fresh out of a bag. Conspicuous in their tastelessness, aside from a decent texture from not having been overcooked, there was absolutely nothing to them.
The dish came with a mixture of rice and beans, too. Like the vegetables, the rice and beans didn’t have a whole lot going for them, although when the meat was gone, the rice did provide a nice way to gather up all the leftover sauce.
I was thrilled when we saw that plantains would be a side as well. I fry them at home often, and enjoy the subtle sweetness they give to a meal. Ours were a little overcooked and didn’t look like much in a small dark-brown-to-black pile, but they still imparted a touch of sweetness, which is all I could really ask for. Besides, there aren’t many places in town that will serve fried plantains next to oxtail.
My Jamaican friend advised I try a soda or two with my meal. While my companion was happy with her grapefruit soda, I was equally satisfied with my ginger beer. The ginger beer (very much not like ginger ale) has a floral scent and flavor, out of which ginger rises to the forefront. Again, when compared to the three or four typical soda options at most restaurants, these soft drinks were a nice surprise.
If I go back to the Palace of Jamaica, I’ll certainly do takeout: The salvage-yard-waiting-room ambiance, complete with the heavy-duty black rental rugs and ill-fitting makeshift door to the backroom, just couldn’t be saved by a couple posters of Bob Marley. And the sticker shock of a nearly $30 bill gave me reason to think next time it has to be lunch.
But, hey, when there are plantains and oxtail on the menu, you already have me halfway hooked. Maybe next time I’ll order ahead for the escoveitched fish or the goat curry — and perhaps enjoy my meal in a nearby park.
Palace of Jamaica
424 S. Washington Square, Lansing
12:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Monday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; closed Sunday
D, TO, P, $$$