Where do you go when you get a hankering for something deliciously exotic, but the wallet's feeling light? For folks living and working on the East Side of town, two spots immediately come to mind. Set just a few miles apart on Mayfield Road, Taste of Jamaica (Caribbean fare) and Taste of Kerala (South Indian) each serve up well-crafted eats at remarkably affordable prices.
Rather than sit-down dining destinations, both spots are mainly carryout. This is not necessarily a bad thing — especially during these days of post-holiday recovery. Taken in concert with their concise menus, skeleton crews, and low overheads, it allows each place to sell good food at rock-bottom prices.
And remember: No servers means no gratuity either.
Open for just over six months, Taste of Kerala is an absolute delight. Bright, cheery, and tidy, the storefront shop offers Indian cuisine made to order in a rear kitchen. A small assortment of pre-made appetizers like potato-filled samosas, chicken-filled puff pastry, and crispy fried lentil cakes are displayed for sale in a heated case.
Like other South Indian eateries, this one devotes a large portion of the menu to vegetarian dishes. Pillowy steamed rice patties called idli are served with various accompaniments for dipping. Choices include sambar, chickpea curry, chicken curry, or a mild, curry-scented vegetable soup. Each portion includes four plump idli dumplings and a generous serving of the chosen accompaniment.
Chicken curry here is saucier and thinner than elsewhere, with large pieces of tender stewed white and dark meat. It also possesses a complex spice blend that pairs deep, steady heat with exotic flavors. In addition to being served with idli, chicken curry is also paired with chapati: large tortilla-like flatbreads made from wheat.
Asked about the spiciest dish on the menu, the proprietor suggested the chicken biryani. Buried in a heap of fluffy golden rice are chunks of spice-rubbed chicken. Indeed, the dish doesn't pull any punches in the heat department. A side of cool and chunky raita, made with yogurt and cucumber, is served alongside as a refreshing fire extinguisher.
Like Taste of Kerala, Taste of Jamaica is a small, lean, and largely take-out operation. Rather than being prepared in a closed-off kitchen, most of Jamaica's food is plucked from a nearby steam table. Since many of the dishes are stews and braises, they hold up just fine to the long, low heat.
Two thoughts came to mind the first time I ordered a large portion of jerk chicken here: "Holy crap, that's big!" quickly followed by, "Holy crap, that's good!" Ever since, I've stuck with the small size, which still is a misnomer for a dish that seems built for giants.
No matter which size you go with, you'll find the flavors are irresistible. Rubbed with a magical blend of Caribbean spices, the jerk chicken isn't mind-numbingly spicy. But the heat is a creeper, building to a blissful burn.
Saucier and less spicy than the jerk, the curried chicken is no less enjoyable. Like the jerk, it is served bone-in, but thanks to melt-in-your-mouth tender meat, the bones fall out like baby teeth. If the braised oxtail is still available when you show up (it often isn't), get it. Beefy, succulent, and rich, the earthy stew is truly a "taste of Jamaica." Also popular but often unavailable is the curried goat. In fact, item availability changes so frequently at Taste of Jamaica that the small, hand-written wall menu displays marks next to those dishes that are and are not on-hand.
Most mains include a mountain of rice and beans as well as a side of steamed cabbage. Jamaican sodas are stowed in a display fridge.
If you're going to Taste of Jamaica, bring cash, as that is all that's accepted. Taste of Kerala, however, accepts credit cards.
Of course with prices this low, you may not need them.
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