Opal Bell's Pride of Jamaica may have opened last September, but the Jamaican eatery retains an air of improvisation even months later. The hours run 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, but stay flexible on other days, and if you don't know exactly what you want, as I don't, no worries. Bell will happily whip up a sampler of what she does best and bring it out to your table herself.
There are no servers, no host—just a handful of tables spread around a big dining room painted the green, yellow and black of the Jamaican flag. The floor is paved with black and white squares. On the left stands a spread with Bell's stewed goodies, next to the digital register. Behind there I hear a rattling cooler. Around the corner, I see flames leaping up below Bell's wide pots. In an opposite corner, CNN blares breaking news about O. J. Simpson, which takes me back a couple decades. A triangular stage fills another corner, and mirrored walls and a disco ball complete the scene.
Bell, 59, immigrated to the States from Jamaica nine years ago to work as a nanny. Pride of Jamaica was originally located in Bradenton, but most of her customers came from Sarasota. When her rent went up, she decided to move her eatery closer to her customers.
As we chat, a handful of customers come and go. Volunteers from Green Path Veterans Farm hold a casual lunch meeting. The farm is located inside Orange Blossom Community Garden, just a couple minutes southwest from Pride of Jamaica, which sits on the north side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, just east of 301. Green Path supplies Bell with fresh produce; Bell shows off a cardboard box loaded with shiny, crunchy-looking green bell peppers.
The sampler platter that Bell eventually hands me is weighty enough that I need both hands to grip it, lest I spill meat and rice all over the floor. The plate includes mustardy yellow scoops of curry chicken and curry goat, plus a couple black-husked hunks of jerk chicken and brownish-red braised oxtails. Beneath the array of meat lies a base of rice and peas and steamed cabbage. A platter of any one of those meats typically costs between $7.99 and $10.99, or you can get smaller portions for $5.99-$6.99.
Where to begin? With the curry goat, which includes tender knobs of meat and generous chunks of fat that cling to small bones. The sauce is rich and salty, coating the meat and spilling over onto the cabbage and rice. The same sauce surrounds the curry chicken, which Bell has simmered till the meat is just barely hanging together.
On the side, Bell offers a plastic ramekin filled with some kind of secret sauce whose ingredients she refuses to reveal. The thin liquid is seriously tart, with a vinegary kick that enlivens the somewhat muted profile of the long-stewed proteins on the plate. Bell's oxtails are still a little chewy, but the flavor's there. The jerk chicken, meanwhile, is outstandingly smoky, with a bark-like skin and juicy meat below. Bell keeps the spice level low in every meat to allow customers to customize it to their liking, a smart strategy.
The rice and peas and cabbage suffer a bit from a too-heavy hand with the salt. Rather than offering an easygoing contrast to the more powerful flavors atop them, they're a little too intense.
Cutting against all those strong flavors: a bottle of DG Genuine Jamaican Ginger Beer ($1.50). Bottled in Kingston, this soda is a masterpiece, a dazzling mix of sugar and carbonation that's set off by a sharp dose of ginger. Forget to order one at your peril.
Not that I really need to order one. Bell herself tells me I should try a bottle and brings it out in a jiff. Just another example of how eating here isn't like eating at a restaurant—it's more like eating around Bell's dinner table.
Pride of Jamaica is located at 2025 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Sarasota. It is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and various hours on other days. Call (941) 487-8188 for more info.