I really love Jamaican food. Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/). Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park. It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix. They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis. But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.
On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish. It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains. I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.
Ackee is actually a fruit! Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic. But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter. I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings. Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.” The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy. The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains. But these were more like bland-tains!
Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine. I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak. They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin. You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.
After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room. We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.
Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes. This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later. I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot. I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient. This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains. I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.
Curried goat (pardon the blurriness). This was another one of my co-workers’ choices. I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones. However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies. This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!
Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables. I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.
Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers. I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review). I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe. But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s.
I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us. Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand. But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta! Needless to say, they liked it too.
Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once. But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here? Even the roti?” I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time. I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges. There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included. And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked. When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.
But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang. In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now. As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food. Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!