If you didn't know there was a new Jamaican restaurant downtown, you're not the only one. Jamaican Me Hungry quietly opened seven weeks ago in the old Lucas Belgian Chocolates spot on State Street, near Wasabi. I stopped by there yesterday for lunch to check it out.
From the street, the storefront signs are unnoticeable — the name is affixed to the windows in white decal letters. The awning is the same from the chocolate shop. The front door is tucked away, off the street, which makes it even harder to notice. But the smell ought to be enough to pull hungry bellies in off the street. The redolence of curry had me salivating as I walked in the door to find a vibrant, funky little space. All white leather furniture, bright yellow walls, and red accents, the tiny dining room felt both casual and fancy all at once.
Three flat-screen TVs were showing a concert DVD of Beres Hammond, a popular Jamaican reggae master. Swirling, multicolored LED lights only added to the dancehall vibe. I felt bad that I was the only one in there. This place was jamming.
I was greeted by owner Saviya Smith, who was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to Charleston from New York four years ago. She said she couldn't find any Jamaican places in town that offered an intimate dining experience. The few that exist are all take-out spots. Saviya says she's a good cook, so she figured she'd open her own place. "I decided to bring a little culture to Charleston."
The menu is broken down by day of the week, with a different lineup each day. On Wednesday, it was island oxtails, pineapple jerk shrimp, and carnival curry chicken, with reggae wraps (rice and beans with your choice of meat), beef patties, and coco bread. They also have a vegetarian option each day.
I asked server Mark Allen, a Jamaican native, for his favorite dish, and he said the chicken curry. I took his advice and went for it. Out first was a big bowl of chicken soup, which came with plenty of potatoes and dumplings. Saviya makes everything from scratch, by hand, every day. The long, tender dumplings are called spinners. She says she spins the dough between her palms to make them. After soup came a fresh salad with Vidalia onion dressing, followed by my massive entree.
First, Mark set down a large plate with a large mound of rice and beans surrounded by fresh, grilled plantains.
Two more bowls followed. One had steamed cabbage and the other had the chicken curry: chunks of dark meat in a spicy, flavorful broth made using classic Jamaican spices like allspice, turmeric, garlic, thyme, and scallions. It was delicious but not too spicy.
I asked Saviya if this is the typical spice level, and she laughed. "Oh no. I'd use a whole pepper in mine." That would be a scotch bonnet pepper, one of the hottest in the world. Down in the islands, they aren't afraid of the heat, and Saviya will be happy to up the hotness on your dish, if you're up for it. Otherwise you'll get a nice mild version with a subtle hint of heat.
While I was there, a carriage driver who works at the Market stopped in for the first time, surprised that he didn't even know they were there. He actually suggested she call the City Paper to help get the word out, and she pointed at me eating my lunch and said, "There's the City Paper." So, here's me doing what I do best: getting the word out about cool, new places in town. Jamaican Me Hungry is a very real little place. Every morning, Saviya gets in there and starts cooking at 6 a.m. and she's using fresh food and traditional Jamaican techniques.
By the time lunch was over, I was having a good time talking to Saviya about her food and culture and I was utterly stuffed. For $10.95, I was served a lot of food. But when I saw another guy come in, order, and scarf down a beef pattie, I had to order a bunch and bring some back to the office for the kids to try. They proved to be a perfect island bite.
Another island bite I'm looking forward to trying is the escovitch fish, which is a Friday and Saturday special, made with hot peppers, vinegar, and usually red snapper or porgy.