His Caribbean Majesty

King Jamaican Restaurant
1279 Fulton (at Divisadero). Open noon to 10 p.m. daily, except when closed for errands, etc. Credit cards occasionally accepted. There is no dining room, but the storefront is wheelchair accessible; meals may be ordered by phone or in person for takeout or (sometimes) delivery. Call 567-1294.

Back when "jerk" meant a tasteless guy instead of a tasty marinade, back before reggae evolved into dancehall, Prince Neville's Jamaican Restaurant on Haight Street served jerked chicken, curried goat, escovitch fish, saltfish, roti (the Trinidadian stuffed east Indian flatbread), "patties," and other spicy specialties of the British West Indies. The food was i-ree -- not just delicious but deeply true to its roots, a tropic opposite from all those Bay Area yuppie restaurants (pace the late Miss Pearl's) where "Caribbean" refers primarily to the fantasies of the chef or the decorator. (If your entree looks like Carmen Miranda's tutti-frutti hat, it's bogus.) But as soon as I found it, and ate there just once, Prince Neville's disappeared. This must have been about 10 years ago.

Long time passing, and it showed up again on Fulton Street just east of Divisadero -- only to vanish again before I could grab another meal. We sought him here, we sought him there, we eaters sought him everywhere. Was he in Frisco -- or Manchioneal? That damned, elusive Prince Neville!

Another year, and from the 24 Divisadero bus I spotted the royal name, but it was on the window of what seemed to be a tiny reggae record shop, a few blocks from the restaurant's last site. A few weeks ago, though, looking up another restaurant in the Yellow Pages, I noticed a listing for a "King Jamaican Restaurant" at an address on Fulton near Divisadero. Had the culinary artist formerly known as Prince Neville given himself a promotion? Had he been reborn as his own heir?

I phoned King's and asked for a menu. Could they fax it? No fax. I asked them to mail one. They said yes but never did. I also asked if by chance King's was some relation to Prince Neville's; the answer was totally vague and vaguely negative. Finally my sweetie and I headed in person for the Western Addition, only to find a clean but cluttered little Jamaican "gift shop," with tie-dye hangings, knit berets, Caribbean tchotchkes, and reggae tapes. No tables, no waitstaff, no sign of an eatery -- except a distant, tantalizing aroma.

Somewhere behind the store, someone's cooking, Lord (kumbaya). At the counter were paper menus, and it turned out there was, indeed, food to be had. If you're patient you can hang out, wait for the food, and take it home. Or you can take a menu with you and phone in an order. If you're not too far away; if there's someone to deliver; if they feel like delivering; if you're a magnificent human being (or a sweet talker) -- with luck you can even get a meal brought right to your door.

To get authentic Jamaican food you will have to experience a bit of Jamaican culture. The first time I ordered dinner, the voice on the phone -- deep, mellow, Caribbean -- said it might take a long time before the delivery fellow got back. Did I still want to order? I said, "No rush, Jamaican Time is OK with me." "Ah, so you know about Jamaican Time?" he said. I mentioned all those reggae shows that are scheduled for 9 p.m. but actually start at 1 a.m. This got a laugh of recognition -- and delivery just an hour later.

Like most Caribbean islands, Jamaica is basically agricultural (aside from resorts and bauxite mines), and in tropical agriculture there's no winter weather coming to make the farmers bust their chops. High-speed and high-tech are not part of the cultural picture. So even this far north King's answering machine may not let you leave a message, and absent the fellow who can operate the credit card machine, you'll have to pay cash. Don't expect everything that's listed on the menu to be available; other than fish, much of it won't be. (Very likely, the most labor-intensive and time-intensive dishes -- like patties, dumplings, oxtail stew, and roti-skins for Trinidadian-style "wraps" -- are cooked in batches, with part frozen for later. When the last of it's gone, that's it until the next batch is cooked.) In fact, nowadays, I just ask, "What's for dinner, Your Majesty?" And whatever His Highness wants to cook will probably be plenty good enough. "Soon come," I tell myself, and play Toots & the Maytals tapes until the doorbell rings.

The first time I ordered, the deep voice on the phone advised, "The fellow cooking is really good with salmon, you should have that." So I did, and he asked if I wanted it "really spicy" and I said yes. The salmon turned out to be a big, juicy hunk of fish in escovitch ($10.95), a tomato-based sauce with sauteed bell and hot peppers and onions. It was spiced at the authentic, fire-breathing Jamaican level; surely the chiles were Jamaica's own Scotch bonnets (supermarkets here carry a close relative called "habaneros," their Cuban name), a little tam-shaped devil with a fruity, mustardy undertone and a gargantuan dose of capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot. The result was just this side of nuclear; in the future, I'll order "pretty spicy but not maximum." We also got a plate of that Jamaican classic, curried goat ($9.95), with young, tender meat in a rich brown coconut-milk sauce of moderate spiciness. With dinner, you also get salad (a normal lettuce salad with a decent bottled dressing that tasted like one of Bernstein's) or soup. The latter was vegetarian five bean and vegetable soup, a creamy-dreamy pottage thickened with pureed legumes, dotted with whole beans that maintained their textures and diced vegetables that had surrendered theirs, having given their all to the liquid.

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