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.
Dinners also come with a gently seasoned mixture of carrots, cauliflower, greens, and onions, overcooked to mush. (For vegans who can live with soggy veggies, the menu offers dinners of this mixture with a Jamaican fruit called "ackee," or with tofu, or cooked as a curry, or, occasionally, as roti.) In addition, with dinner you get "rice and peas," with kidney beans playing the peas (as they do back home). King's isn't the best version of the dish I've ever had (I like a bit more allspice), but it's not bad. As a side (and because there are no desserts) we ordered fried plantains ($2.50), which were the best version -- sweet-starchy ripe plantains sliced lengthwise and gently sauteed until melting and lightly caramelized. For a beverage, we had ginger "beer" ($2), actually a fierce house-made ginger ale, nonalcoholic but intensely infused with ginger root, which is said to be good for you. Besides the food, the fact that the label bore Prince Neville's name and logo made me suspect that King might indeed be the Prince's latest avatar. (The next meal we had the "light" ginger beer, which proved less exigent and more pleasurable.)
The second dinner, we started with a pair of patties ($2 each) -- thin turnovers with crisp baked-dough wrappers surrounding savory fillings. The minced chicken patty was pleasant, though the curry flavoring had an odd, brassy undertone. But the beef just blew it away, with a hand-chopped texture and a seasoning complex enough to afford a full and equal collaboration between the spices and the Scotch bonnets. Incidentally, the menu promises "No Pork," and that all meats are organic, kosher, and Halah. (Usually spelled "Hallal," the Islamic butchering code is similar to the Jewish restrictions. In fact, given the lack of dairy products in the cuisine -- the milk the kid is stewed in comes from a coconut, not a nanny goat -- odds are, food from King's is safe from tref.)
Wanting to try a different fish, we had red snapper (it's actually Pacific rockfish; snapper doesn't swim this far north), which the cook felt like covering with a smooth but incendiary red sauce ($9.95). The fish was tasty but the sauce overwhelmed it; the previous meal's salmon had proven a better choice given the powerful seasonings His Majesty favors. We also had jerked chicken ($8.95). Jerk is a multispiced, peppery marinade in which allspice (which grows in Jamaica) and Scotch bonnets play defining roles. On the island, the jerked meat is barbecued over the wood of the "pimiento" (allspice) tree, but up here, pimiento wood isn't available, and even if it were, the absence of grilled items from the menu suggests that the King has no wood-fired grill. Still, the chicken had been marinated long enough that the jerk permeated it wholly, leaving it spicy right down to the bone; then it was baked (just slightly dry) and finally daubed with a savory-spicy brown sauce.
This time, the "delivery fellow" was off for the night. The same mellow voice said that if we could wait, he himself would deliver the food after closing. Sure, I could wait, I assured him. He showed up promptly at 10:40 p.m. He was wearing a black leather cap, not the top hat in the picture of Prince Neville on the ginger beer bottles. Still, I scrutinized him carefully. Now, I hope I'm not giving away a terrible secret that will cause King's to vanish away like its predecessor, because I still don't know the reason behind all those evanescings.
"You really are Neville, aren't you?" I asked.
"Yes, I am," he confessed.
"Hey, I'm glad you're back.