Can’t get to the islands, mon? Try a night out at the Kingston Café
By Erica Wayne 07/22/2010
You don’t need a jet to get to the Caribbean. Just stop by the Kingston Cafe on South Fair Oaks and you’ll see that a taste of the tropics exist right here in Pasadena. The restaurant’s been in business for almost two decades, with a prolonged hiatus for refurbishing and expansion that ended sometime last year. Until recently, I couldn’t guarantee the nights there were as gay at the Kingston Café as they are in Jamaica (I’d only been there for lunch), but a week ago, we ventured into the “new and improved” Kingston Café and went away even more impressed than we had been with our daytime meals in years past.
Kingston Café used to be oddly divided into an antechamber, four smallish dining rooms and a kitchen. Now, the configuration is still the same, but with one addition. Behind the last dining room is a spacious new area with high, skylighted ceilings, an angled bar and a ginormous seaside photo framed by mirrors in one corner. Kid or folk murals (I’m not sure which) decorate the other three walls. Splashy undercloths in bright colors remind me of beach towels, although the effect is somewhat muted by an overlay of both white linen and white paper. A Caribbean music backdrop completes the mood.
Kingston’s menu is a study in exotica and takes a Caribbean translator to make it clear. I dare you to order ackee and saltfish, escovitched fish or festival without reading the small print or asking for explanations. Only the most intrepid foodies would undertake such a venture, but they’d be rewarded with a well-cooked and unusual meal. (I notice, however, that a few of the more esoteric items that were on Kingston’s pre-renovation menu, e.g. johnny cake, saltfish fritters and matrimony, have disappeared.)
Start a meal with “ruddie shrimp” ($9) a West Indies take on tempura: five huge plump black tigers in a feather-light Red Stripe beer batter with a papaya, cilantro and scotch bonnet tartar sauce. Or try a rich beef patty ($3.50), a cross between a samosa and empanada — tangy meat filling in flaky yellow pastry. We washed these down with house-made ginger beer ($3), almost medicinal in strength. Others might prefer sorrel drink ($3) made from reddish flower petals, lemonade with brown sugar ($3) or, of course, a bottle of Red Stripe ($7) or wine (by the glass or bottle, $6 to $54).
“Hot Flashes,” the cutesy name for jerk chicken with rice and beans ($18) is a delicious dish of poultry dredged in a tangy spice paste. You can pick mild or hot, but don’t fret — there’s a generous mound of rice to reduce the heat. Saltfish and ackee ($20), a tropical fruit that resembles scrambled eggs when cooked, is equally compelling. The dried fish is slightly chewy and tastes only mildly of the sea. The soupy sauce, nicely flavored with tomatoes and onions, is loaded with butter. Coconut rum shrimp ($20), sautéed in garlic, scotch bonnet and flambéed (in the kitchen) in rum, comes with a creamy coconut sauce that’s also deadly rich but irresistible.
All these entrees, as well as curried goat ($19), Negril jam steak with ginger wine reduction ($33), escovitched fish, sautéed with herbs, scotch bonnet and a hint of vinegar ($22) and a half-dozen other choices come with colorful vegetables (the night we were there, giant carrot slices and baby string beans) and a playfully conceived plastic Chinese soupspoon garnish filled with a refreshing melon salsa. In addition, you’ll get a charming frisee salad starter, served in a martini glass with papaya vinaigrette spiraled around the inside surface and a garnish slice of fresh cucumber; and a side plate of festival (a fried, spiced bread), sautéed plantains and a dollop of stewed, almost candied, pineapple with almonds.
Kingston Café’s portions are extraordinarily generous and, with the carb-rich sides, make it likely that you won’t have room for dessert.
WARNING: Ask for a doggie bag and pack away some of your dinner for lunch the next day. You don’t want to miss the dense, moist, fragrant, heavenly homemade ginger cake ($4). Our server told us the recipe’s a family secret. If we can believe her, it’s actually baked by the owner at home and brought to the restaurant each day. We paired it with oversize scoops of top-notch rum raisin and ginger ice cream ($4 apiece).
Kingston Café has entertainment on Saturday nights — a live reggae band starts at 7.
And their lunch menu includes several of the dinner dishes at somewhat reduced prices. By the way, we noticed that the Web site’s price list is a little out of date for some items. But take a look anyway. The gallery of food photos should have you rushing over to taste for yourselves.
We’ll certainly be coming back for some of the things we didn’t get to try last week. To paraphrase the old song: “My heart is down, my head is turning around; I had to leave a little food in Kingston Town.”