Alice Eats: Cool Runnings
38 Park Street, Essex Junction 802-871-5399
The phone number at Cool Runnings doesn't work and the only table is covered with the staff's belongings. On the shelves, there are boxes of Spanish fly and condoms that advertise genital numbing properties. So this isn't exactly the Kitchen Table Bistro. Get over it.
I took a few sips of my Cola Lacaye banana soda, which tasted exactly how one might imagine banana soda would taste. Think banana Laffy Taffy melted down and carbonated. It's just one of many quirky sodas, energy drinks and juices that the Jamaican store and restaurant in Essex carries in its coolers, which are decorated with stickers of Bob Marley, spliff firmly in mouth.
The eight-item menu is written on a white board attached to an O'Douls clock with the incorrect time. Curried fish, brown stew chicken and saltfish with ackee are all listed sans prices, but I felt secure that I wouldn't be breaking the bank. I ordered my dinner, then waited while the owner prepared the food at a small stove just behind the counter.
While he cooked, I amused myself perusing the shelves of the store. Amid wall hangings depicting Haile Selassie, there were many Jamaican food products I've never seen outside big cities, including several brands of canned ackee, which was illegal in the United States until 2005 (fresh ackee still is). The vegetable, related to the lychee, is cooked and served like scrambled eggs. The plant has only one edible part, which must be properly cleaned and boiled to eliminate poisons.
Since the single table was occupied and no one offered to clear it, I sped home with a Jamaican feast that felt like it weighed 20 pounds. The meal, including drinks, cost $17.32.
I set up a buffet on my coffee table of curried goat, jerk chicken and beef patties. This fed three people and a cat, with enough left over for another meal.
The jerk chicken (above right) was everyone's favorite. I was alarmed when I first saw it emerge from the oven. It looked so black that I assumed it had been burned. Though it was slightly dry in places, it was just the seasonings that lent it the blackened appearance. The dish appeared to encompass half a chicken, including leg, wing and breast, all on the bone, all hacked into shareable slices. The taste was more aromatic than fiery. The dish was flavorful and pleasantly spiced, but not bonnet pepper hot as I'm accustomed to.
The goat (right) was cooked in a pressure cooker and didn't quite achieve the level of tenderness I hoped for. It was slightly stringy, but soft enough given the speed with which it was prepared. Its flavor was better than its texture — lightly spiced, with a richly meaty broth.
For a cuisine that's known for its heat, it was a surprise that the slightly mushy rice and beans that came with both entrees was the spiciest part of the meal. It had a slow burn that grew more appealing with each bite.
Both plates also came with tender stewed cabbage and sweet and slightly tangy slices of fried plantains, which calmed the fire of the rice nicely.
I'm a lifelong fan of Jamaican beef patties, but at Cool Runnings, I encountered them in a way I never had before. The little meat pies were stuffed with mild beef ground so smooth it was almost unrecognizable. From there, the dish got weird, though authentic.
Each pie was placed inside a split roll called coco bread. The bread is as sweet as pound cake, thanks to the coconut milk with which it's prepared. I liked the bread, but served with the patties, it was a bit of a carb overload. I ended up saving the coco bread for a future sandwich. And when I return to the quirky Jamaican shop, I may buy some on its own to try with my saltfish and ackee.