The quirkiness that is the colorful establishment of Island Spice Jamaican Restaurant makes it an adorable misfit to the less than affluent neighborhood of Grant Hill in San Diego (about 1.5 miles south east of Downtown proper). The place is located on Market St between 28th and 29th Avenues, with its parking area perching precariously over a rather nasty drop of (with a rather dodgy neighborhood underneath it!). If you are getting there by car and decide to park on their lot, be sure to leave some room between the car and the fence…. and remember to put on that hand-brake, too!
This is a mom and pop Jamaican eatery that so exudes the owners’ island mood that walking into it is almost like being transported to the Caribbean. If the beach fresco on the wall and the bamboo paneling don’t convince you of the setting, the aroma of the food there ought to do the trick.
The inside dining area is actually smaller than you would imagine (there are only 3 large tables and a few stools at the counter). The long counter opens right into the kitchen so you can actually see your food being cooked or heated… Strangely enough, though, the menu is really hard to see, since it looks very much like all the rest of the posters that are plastered all over their walls. This is a neighborly sort of eatery with a very lax atmosphere (so expect unhurriedly neighborly service rather than businesslike quick-silver one)… even the one tv monitor in the dining room is tilted so that the kitchen staff can enjoy the afternoon soap opera!
At any rate… this is, I think, the only Jamaican restaurant in San Diego area. The dishes are exotic (for me, at least) and the portion size gigantic. A large portion (usually $12) of any of these dishes last me 3-4 meals rather than just one! The star of the menu is their famous Oxtail soup ($10 for small, and $12 for large portion); tender meat dropping out of rich, succulent bones sinking in aromatic bed of scallion, thyme, and other Jamaican spices. This thing looks like it can clog all four of your coronary arteries in one bite, but man… the taste is worth it! Oxtail is usually sold out by late afternoon, though, so if this is what you want to have, you’ve better call ahead or arrive early!
My favorite dish is the Curry Goat (same price as with Oxtail… and yep, they call it curry goat rather than goat curry) served with rice and beans and a side of Callaloo salad (you can have Callaloo as a vegetarian entree, too). This is really strong stuff. The curry can be very salty, and you shouldn’t chew too confidently into the goat meat or you’ll end up grinding your teeth in hard bits of bone that are broken off in the chopping process (and that can really hurt!). If anything, I like this dish to-go and eaten with steamed white rice, which counters the saltiness of the curry better than the rice and beans does. The Brown Stew Fish with Jamaican style tomato sauce should be the favorite of pregnant women with its blend of saltiness and tang… and well highlighted with onions. I don’t really like the fried plantain they included in pretty much all the dishes much (it’s fried green banana!), but I’m glad to have tasted authentic version of it now.
All the items on the menu can be ordered ‘a la carte‘ for $7. They also have variety of homemade cakes for dessert, but I haven’t tried any yet. The entree alone finishes me every time! There is also a small shop inside that is lined with bottles of exotic sauces and drinks from Jamaica.
So… If you are in Downtown San Diego area and feel like getting a really big taste of real Jamaican food, drop in at Island Spice on Market St between 28th and 29th Aves (in Grant Hill area) and catch a sniff from afar of the Caribbean Sea.
Island Spice Jamaican Restaurant: 2820 Market St (between 28th and 29th Avenues), San Diego, CA 92101. Tel. (619) 702-9309 Opens daily 9:30AM – 8:00PM. To go order available (allow 15 minutes). All major credit cards accepted with a service charge.