Hot spot, Jamaican style

The Half Way Tree
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 6, 2013

Among the virtues of Jamaica, which include the glow of its sunshine and friendly people, is the island's cuisine. The influence of settlers from a half-dozen countries, from Britain to China, extends to the food.

The Half Way Tree restaurant, named after a Kingston neighborhood, has a small sampling but a good representation. A modest place, it has just a few tables in front of a bar operated by the nightclub upstairs, Lot 401. Owner Ted "Dr. TKO" Panagiotis, whose other occupational interests include marketing and professional boxing, has offices in Jamaica. He says that in RI he was "brought up on reggae music." Heading the kitchen is Shatte Max, with 22 years experience in cooking dishes from his native Jamaica.

Our friendly Bahamian waitress Danielle promptly brought me my beer — Red Stripe, of course, richer than most American lagers and brewed on the island. There were also appropriate refreshments for my luncheon companions: a zippy pineapple and ginger juice drink and a sorrel and ginger.

One side of the menu has the main items, less than two dozen, and the other lists beverages, garden and jerk chicken salads (each in two sizes), plus a few sides, such as fried dumplings ($2 for two) and bulla (misspelled "bula" but making up for that by also being only $2), a cake-like bread containing molasses and ginger.

We started with an order of "Festival" ($2), and out came four of what looked like stretched-out doughboys the size of small cigars. They were tasty from the fresh corn oil they were fried in as well as a little sugar in the batter. The peppery salt fish fritters ($3 for two) were even more flavorful.

We also had two of their four varieties of chicken wings ($6/$9) — the teriyaki, which was as delectable as expected, and the "Authentic Jerk Chicken Wings." The latter was a good way to sample the jerk spice rub that all of them start out with, since they weren't overwhelmed with the Buffalo or BBQ options. They were mildly hot, and I learned afterward that standard ingredients include garlic, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Baked, not fried. And delicious.

Each table has a pair of hot sauces, and we're not talking Frank's or Tabasco. One is red and labeled "Very Hot"; the other one is deceptively yellow, the color making it look mild rather than like a warning that the bottle contains the fire of a thousand suns. It's made from the Caribbean scotch bonnet hot peppers. They are sweeter than their cousin the habaneros, but both of them have a Scoville heat unit rating of 100,000-350,000, which compares to the jalapeño's 2500-8000. In other words, go easy with it.

I did. I mixed a little bit with a fork full of rice, then did the same with the red hot sauce and continued with that one, since I could use more and thereby get more flavor. It was white rice and "peas" (what we call kidney beans). The other items on every entrée plate are two pieces of fried plantain, that banana look-alike that is firmer and not as sweet, and a mix of cabbage and red peppers.

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