We've loved Jamaican food ever since we visited the land of jerk chicken, coconut rum, and reggae music years ago. So when a reader alerted us to the Pepper Pot, just off of Dudley Square in Roxbury, we had to go. The place is plain but pleasant, with some Jamaican posters on the walls. You order at the counter and your meal will be brought to you on a Styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. Jamaican music, with its inimitable beat, filters out of speakers.
While you're waiting, ask for a patty ($1.50) - either chicken or beef - and eat it without utensils. Just bite into the yellow, flaky square pastry filled with spicy beef with just a touch of gravy. They're steaming hot and a wonderful texture and flavor combination. While we were there, several people simply ordered a patty - $1.50 extra for it to be slid into a coco bread bun with melted cheese - and ate it like a burger. (The bread has no coconut in it; rather, it's buttery and soft, much like a good, homemade hamburger roll).
On a recent Saturday night, a man named Felix dressed in a suit and carrying a Bible had just come from church. He devoured a chicken patty on the bread and washed it down with a Jamaican fruit juice. "This place is real, it's authentic," said Felix, who is Jamaican.
It should be. It is owned and operated by Stanley Byfield, who left Jamaica 19 years ago, and it's a family affair. He's the main chef; his wife, Barbara, makes the pastries; their teenage son DeCarlo helps out in the adjacent ice cream shop; and a sister-in-law, Lorna, is at the counter. Assorted other relatives help out, too. Byfield says he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother and grew up in a house redolent with Jamaican spices.
"The first time I ever cooked for my grandmother, she told me she would never go back in the kitchen because my food was so good," he says, laughing.
One of his signature dishes, of course, is jerk chicken, which had a crisp skin flamed by jerk spices from home - a melange of chili, cayenne, and black pepper, as well as Scotch bonnets that added a smoky flavor. It was delicious and came with a side of rice and beans, fried plantains, and rotating vegetables such as steamed cabbage and carrots.
A nice thing about the Pepper Pot, which has the same menu for lunch and dinner, is that you can order lunch or dinner sizes at either meal. Jerk chicken, for instance, comes in a smaller lunch size for $6 or dinner size for $9. Most dinner entrees are large enough to have the next day.
Try the stewed beef ($6.50 lunch, $9.50 dinner), so tender it fell apart at the touch of a plastic fork. The rich brown gravy is wonderful with the rice and beans, though we found the fried plantain a bit rubbery. (We also tried the boiled dumpling and plantain, which Lorna, a vegetarian, said would be better for us. But we found them bland and boring and aesthetically unappealing: think white and gummy.)
I know some people adore curried goat, but I couldn't go there, so I ordered curried shrimp instead ($11 for lunch, $15 for dinner). The plump shrimp were doused with a golden Jamaican curry sauce with enticing heat.
Another popular dish is oxtails with butter beans ($9, $11). The oxtails were surprisingly meaty with a robust flavor and were best eaten by just picking them up and gnawing on them, like ribs. We loved the large butter beans, rather like limas but larger and darker.
One member of our party was nursing a bad cold, so we ordered him the chicken soup ($3.25, $5.75). The broth was thick with large hunks of chicken, potatoes, and carrots. (Our patient reported feeling much better the next day.)
As for dessert, there's the ice cream shop connected to the restaurant. The hot fudge sundae ($4 medium, $5 large) had a generous amount of good, thick hot fudge on it, not the usual anemic variety out of a can.
But those are the American desserts. We picked out one of Barbara's homebaked goodies, delivered daily. The lemon meringue tartlet ($1.50) had a filling that was not as much a separate custard as it was baked into the dense, crumbly crust. I could have downed two or three.
The Pepper Pot does a brisk takeout business and isn't the sort of place to linger over a meal. Mostly, people appeared to come in, scarf down their food, and take off. The place also offers catering, from house parties to huge corporate events. For a real indulgence, don't even leave your house: put on some reggae, pour some rum punch, call some friends - and Stanley Byfield. He and his family will take care of the rest.