Restaurants, like most everything else in arts and entertainment, mean different things to different people.
Reasonable people can disagree on any particular restaurant’s desirability. Some prefer food and service that are consistent and predictable; others like new flavors and are open to quirky settings and different ways of enjoying food.
Jamerica, the Jamaican restaurant that has been operating on Williamson Street on Madison’s near-east side for 22 years, is an example of a place that appeals strongly to some and not much to others.
That was the takeaway from a recent visit to the colorful café, after which some in our party said they wouldn’t return because they didn’t like its service or atmosphere.
Admittedly, the service here can be spotty. Don’t expect quick table service or someone to be fawning over your every whim and desire.
But as someone who’s dined at Jamerica many times over the years, I feel the restaurant has a special charm. To me, its distinctive style and idiosyncratic service represent a welcome departure from the norm.
One thing our party all agreed on is that the food is tasty (opinions ranged from “pretty good” to “terrific”) and served in large portions.
Owner Martin Deacon said his kitchen’s fare is mostly Jamaican recipes, but the menu also offers a larger Caribbean cuisine.
With its handmade business sign spelling out “Jamerica” in Jamaican colors, the eatery is an unmistakable and colorful fixture of Willy Street. Its dining room is small but bright and welcoming—decorated with a collage of snapshots from friends and customers during visits to Jamaica. You’ll also find posters and pictures of Bob Marley and other reggae music stars.
Their music plays in the background, while mismatched seating arrangements and tablecloths add to the casual, homespun aesthetic.
The waitstaff encourages diners to help themselves to beverages from a cooler containing a selection of beers, both the ginger and alcoholic variety. The most popular here is Red Stripe, a Jamaican pale lager.
It’s a good idea to take your time and keep an open mind at Jamerica. Service can be slow by conventional standards, and the ingredients in some orders will vary depending on what is available in the kitchen.
The restaurant’s menu includes a handful of appetizers, two soups, a dinner menu of jerk, barbecued and curried meats, some mango rundown plates and jambalaya. You can substitute meat with tofu for almost any order, and all orders come with red beans and rice and a vegetable stir fry.
Vegetarian options include jerk tofu ($14), barbecue tofu ($14), mountain boy stir fry ($11) and mango rundown tofu ($15).
For appetizers, I’d skip the kitchen’s uninspired jambalaya ($4) and instead go for its sweet fried plantains ($4).
A “rundown” is a Jamaican dish bordering on a stew, usually consisting of fish, reduced coconut milk, yam, tomato, onion and spices. Jamerica’s mango rundown shrimp ($17) is a house favorite, our server said, while its rundown tofu ($15) is a personal favorite.
The latter dish includes chunks of fried tofu cooked with broccoli, carrots and cabbage in a sweet, creamy sauce of mango puree and coconut milk. The tofu has a crispy exterior but is tender inside, and the vegetables have a little crunch as well. The mix is served over a bed of spicy Jamaican red beans and rice, with hints of thyme and chili pepper—nice foils for the sweet mango and coconut.
Jerk, for the uninitiated, is a style of cooking in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a hot-spice mixture known as Jamaican jerk spice.
Jamerica’s kitchen offers jerk salmon ($17), catfish ($17), pork ($16), chicken ($14) and tofu ($14). Jerk catfish is a flavor sensation, with rice and beans in a bowl with spicy catfish and a mix of cabbage, onion, red peppers and carrots.
An order of curried goat ($17) includes flavorful, fork-tender meat complemented with red beans, rice and a stir fry of broccoli and cauliflower. There were some bones in the dish, which turned off a dining companion. I thought its flavor was a winner.
Vegetarians tend to go for the mountain boy stir fry ($11), a mix of “whatever’s left in the kitchen for vegetables,” a server said. Our order included mostly broccoli and cauliflower with spicy beans and rice.
Jamerica offers a variety of different pies and cakes throughout the week and lists them each day on a chalk board by a cooler near the back of the dining room. The one dessert that is almost always on hand is a highly recommended key lime pie ($4).
The restaurant is one of those places that that lends the area its distinctive left-of-center vibe. I can’t think of a more relaxed place in Madison to stop for a beer and a good meal—just don’t be in a hurry.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.