Oxtail with pigeon peas and rice plus steamed cabbage from Little Jamaica Foods.
I've been to Little Jamaica Foods on Walzem Road four times now, and each visit has been different, sometimes wildly different. That lack of consistency is often the kiss of death for most restaurants, but the fact that almost everything tastes home cooked and that the people who run it make you feel like family almost immediately have somehow made everything OK.
Most of us fans of Jamaican food are willing to overlook the discrepancies because, well, there are precious few other options for Jamaican food in San Antonio. I used to eat it regularly when I lived in Florida. At the office where I worked at the time, six or eight of us would order all at once and fill the small break room with the smell of curried goat and braised oxtail, chowing down on every last morsel of pigeon peas and rice as if we'd never eat again.
All of those dishes are mainstays on Little Jamaica's limited menu, with the oxtails ($12) taking high honors. The succulent bits of meat had been stewed so long they were practically falling off the bone, and the tender morsels mingled beautifully with the seasoning. Order this with the rice and peas, and make sure you get a little extra gravy over the rice. There are fewer dishes on earth I like as much as oxtail when it done correctly, and Little Jamaica's version made me very happy and content.
Little Jamaica Foods on Walzem Road.
Please, do not stand on formality when eating it, either. Use your fingers to pick up each and every bone, so you can suck the meat from it. Your fingers will get covered with gravy, but who cares? You can wash your fingers later.
I did the same with the equally wonderful goat ($10), another boney meat that is best when slow-cooked until deliriously tender. This was, and so were the carrots and potatoes added in.
Sounds good so far, right? Well, where was all that care and attention on my first visit? That time, I ordered the jerk chicken ($7 for dark meat, $8 for white) and with the hot sauce on it. The jerk meats I've had in the past, including the barbecued version at Willard's on Mistletoe, have set my tongue tingling because of the habanero incorporated into a lively spice blend with allspice, nutmeg, garlic, cinnamon and more. Little Jamaica's version had no heat whatsoever and little trace of anything but allspice, which did not make for a balanced or palatable sauce. Worse, the meat was mealy and unappetizing.
The two side dishes I ordered that day were an unseasoned, lifeless medley of steamed cabbage with carrots plus green bananas that were woefully undercooked and cold.
So, why did I go back? I loved Jamaican food, and I'll give most places a second chance. I was reward on that second visit with steamed cabbage that was alive with ginger, adobo sauce, habanero and more. It was beautiful, as was the baked sweet potato, both alongside the goat. The cabbage was so good, it made me return for a second meal that day. This time, it was back to the basics, just cabbage and carrots, but at least some salt had been cooked in.
Curried goat with cabbage and a baked sweet potato.
On my fourth visit, I tried the seafood. I ordered the Shrimp Garlic ($10), which was spooned into my Styrofoam tray directly from a food-service bag that had just been removed from the microwave. Enough said about that. The plantains were freshly steamed, sweet and melted all over your mouth. The steamed cabbage was a little overcooked, but bore only slight traces of the desired ginger and habanero. I rarely make the same recipe twice at home, so I understand how this happens.
The patties ($2.50) are seemingly made by the same company that made most every patty I've ever had in a restaurant. That means the beef are fine and the chicken a little funky but acceptable. Both are good snacks when you don't need a full meal.
The setup at Little Jamaica Foods resembles a cafeteria, with the stews and vegetables kept in steamer trays, awaiting your order. There is little room inside the building, which once housed a cellular phone accessories business, if I recall correctly. But there are a few picnic tables on the side, if you want to eat there. The majority of people call in their orders and grab a couple of bottles of ginger beer or Ting and get everything to go.
I will go back to Little Jamaica Foods. When the food is on, it's that good. I will even try the chicken again, because the brown stew chicken and the mango chicken both sound wonderful. I may even drop in for Ackee and Saltfish ($15) some Friday or Saturday. I just wish the cabbage and carrots were always filled with the zing of habanero, ginger and the rest of those magical spices.
Little Jamaica Foods
4929 Walzem Road
Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday