Finding good Jamaican food is a crap shoot sometimes. Some places offer mediocre fare that seem to placate the average eater, and some of the dishes are not cooked in the proper fashion, thus making them inauthentic and characterless to the cognoscenti. So, when I got a recommendation of a Caribbean restaurant from an expat at a birthday party not too long ago, I made a note of it and made plans to visit it not too long after.
Judy’s Island Grill sits sandwiched in between used-car dealerships in Glen Burnie, MD. It is quite out-of-the-way, off my beaten path, but the call for good food will steer me in far-flung directions, within reasonable means, that is. But its bright Caribbean colors sets it off from the drap establishments around it, and you know that you have arrived at your location with some extra help of the cabana-like patio set. Walking in, the place is neatly decorated with an order counter with signs behind it advertising the day’s offerings. The dining area is quite ample and inviting with booths edged up to the windows. After perusing the rather extensive menu, I ordered an appetizer of Beef Patty. The stuffed pie was nothing out of the usual: flaky greaseless pastry with its standard orange-hue tint and a tasty ground meat filling that was quite savorily beefy, with notes of chili heat and ground dry spices. This was washed down by the perfect partner, Pineapple Ginger juice, that was very fruity and sufficiently sweet while the fresh ginger juice echoed the patty’s chili back throat burn. This was a sign of a something promising yet to come.
The first order was Jerk Chicken which is the standard litmus test of any Jamaican kitchen. One fork piercing into the dark meat indicated the nature of its cooking. It was quite firm and not watery, a sign that it was properly smoked and grill. The skin was nearly devoid of any fat, which is another sign of the above cooking approach. The flesh was quite tasty with strong notes of smoke and a moderate taste of the jerk seasoning marination. But the sauce that I tasted was overwhelmingly sour and sweet, which, to my dismay, reminded me too much of BBQ sauce. Later on, the waiter told me that the kitchen had served me the mild sauce and not the spicy one that I requested. He later offered me the later version which tasted stronger in the allspice department and less BBQ-y. However, I like my jerk chicken with all the flavors inside the chicken like what I have tasted before in other places. The fried plantain was naturally sweet and soft, devoid of the unnecessary addition of sugar judging by the lack of over-caramelization. The Calolloo was a definite hit for me with its natural vegetal sweetness and well-cooked stage, without any mushiness, and it made my taste buds search between spinach and Southern-style Kale while I enjoyed its comfort quality. Pretty good jerk chicken that was bolstered by the fantastic sides.
The other order, recommended by my amiable waiter, was Escovitched Red Snapper. The fish came in three sizes, and since I was alone, I went for the 1-pound fish. The whole fish arrived head intact and a sneering mouth with the teeth showing, just how I like my fish cooked (the Asian sensibility in me). I took a bite of the fish to test its preparation, and it tasted fresh, quite firm without being dry, and the skin was quite crisp from a good frying without leaving much greasiness. An adequate hit of salt was added that boosted the flesh flavors. But it was the sauce that took the fish to another level with its notes of fruitiness, sourness, sweetness, and spice heat, along with the pickled carrots, sweet peppers, onions, and Scotch Bonnet peppers that made each bite a cornucopia of flavors and textures – this dish indeed kept me interested with every bite. The side of Rice and Peas blew me away with its flavors and it was the best rendition I have ever tasted – prominent coconut milk note, salty enough (a common mistake by others) and a fragrant note brought about by a generous use of green onions, a similar technique of the use of Pandan leaves in Southeast Asian coconut rice. The Carnival Cabbage was quite sweet and not mushy, but I would have loved a bit more fresh thyme in this simple side. I would highly recommend this order judging by the freshness of the fish, the proper preparation, and the irresistible sauce. For $17, I think this dish is quite a steal.
Walking into the space, you can’t help but pass by and notice the display case filled with cakes. Since I decided to only sample the main courses, I left enough room for their sweet offerings. Most of them are your usual run-of-the-mill cakes, but I honed in on the Rum Cake when I heard its name called out. What arrived looked quite dense and mysterious, which aroused my interest. The first bite revealed its true nature of dark notes of dark molasses and dark rum, and its moistness of soaked raisins pureed into the batter, reminding me of Christmas Pudding served in former British colonies. I was enjoying the level of raisin sweet stickiness, a la Sticky Pudding, and the dark notes of molasses coupled with the dark rum flavors that were present without overwhelming the palate. This version is a good proper one, making me wonder how well-made the other cakes are. Oh well, there is always next time.
Judy’s Island Grill offers some veritable Jamaican cooking to the discerning eater. This was noted in the proper preparation of the various dishes, especially the Jerk Chicken (sans the mild BBQ sauce though) which I am quite fussy about since I have had it in different establishments. But ultimately, it was the flavors of what I sampled that caught my tastebuds’ attention that I tasted in the Pineapple Ginger drink, the Beef Patty (wish they had a Calaloo Patty also), the delectable Escovitched Fish, and the sides dishes that took a formidable supporting role, notably the Rice and Peas, and Calalloo. The Rum Cake must be a good indicator of the rest of the cakes as they sit proudly in the counter waiting for someone’s attention. But you can sense the house’s pride and willingness to please the customer judging by my waiter’s attentiveness and his asking me for suggestions (a bit more whole thyme and allspice). Based on my experience here, this place ranks quite high, and I will be back soon for some more of their Jamaican fare. Thanks for the recommendation, friend at the party.