Jammin' at Jamaica Gates
Did you know there's a reggae remix of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On"? Neither did I, until I went to Arlington's Jamaica Gates to eat jerk chicken.
The skanked-up Titanic anthem poured out of crackling speakers as I sipped my Jamaican lemonade -- thirst-quenching and not too sweet, it's made fresh with brown sugar and limes. (Your guess is as good is mine as to why it's called lemonade rather than limeade, but it seems to be a common drink throughout the Caribbean, and it's a good choice if you're not opting for a Red Stripe instead.)
The place is nothing fancy, with worn vinyl chairs and Jamaican soccer flags and Bob Marley posters lining the walls, but the service is warm and friendly, as if they're genuinely happy to feed you. The menu has odd fusion stuff like jerk chicken nachos and Rasta Pasta (I had flashbacks to the Workaholics episode in which the guys are headed to Jamaica's Hedonism resort and its Pastafari restaurant) alongside island classics like curried goat, meat patties and escoveitch (think ceviche, Jamaican-style).
There's a lunch buffet offered Wednesday through Friday, but I arrived half an hour before lunch ended and wasn't sure how long the food had been sitting in the steam tables, so I ordered off the menu -- the lunch portion of jerk chicken with rice for $8.92.
My food came out quickly and the serving seemed on the meager side (a leg and a small thigh) but it was flanked by a miniature mountain of white rice flecked with red pepper and celery confetti. The chicken's skin wasn't crispy, but most of the fat had been rendered so it wasn't flabby, and it was coated with a dark rub redolent of allspice, cinnamon, dried thyme and a kaleidoscope of other fragrant spices. A mild burn crept up on me by the time I finished the drumstick and moved onto the thigh, both of which bore tender meat that fell from the bone and onto my plate.
Craving more spice, I requested hot sauce, and our congenial waitress brought out a terrifyingly neon yellow bottle of Scotch bonnet sauce. Fiercely spicy with an intense vinegar tang, the piquant elixir added the sinus-clearing kick I was looking for.
Dammit. Should've opted for the buffet, because I could've eaten at least two more pieces of that chicken. No Tums necessary today -- the Jamaican lemonade was enough to extinguish the fire in my belly.
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