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The oxtail soup at Joe’s Caribbean Kitchen is a twice-a-week specialty, made only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Some of those days are busier than others, and sometimes the soup is liable to get less attention than it deserves, at least in the minds of the people in the kitchen.
“If it’s bad, just say so,” is how the waitress introduces me to my bowl of soup. Today, there’s a lunch rush. The dining room is manageable enough—remove the scattering of tables and the place would look bare, but not barren. Nonetheless, today is one of those Fridays. A lot of takeout orders. Too many deliveries. I see a lot of jerk chicken and several rotis coming out of the kitchen. But no bowls of oxtail. As a result, explains my waitress, the soup pot has just been sitting on the stove. She reports that the cook fears that the soup might taste “burned. So if you want something else…”
Joe’s is run by Joe’s family, and no one in the brood, with the possible exception of Mom, is terribly adept at the hard sell. The restaurant is the only one in its strip mall that doesn’t announce itself with an overhead sign, and on two different occasions I arrive for lunch to find that no one has bothered to flip the “Closed” card to “Open.” It’s almost as if your expectations are reduced to ensure that they can be exceeded. My oxtail soup, for example, is delicious, arriving stew-thick and festooned with dense dumplings and rounds of bone stuck with meat. There’s a burn to every bite, but not for the reason that my waitress fears. It’s just spicy.
Black out the surrounding mall, and the place feels like a ramshackle rib hut spliced with a quickie taco joint, the latter of which is exactly what it was before Joe & Co. moved in last summer. The restaurant is stuck in a state of mid-renovation. An old fast-food menu board, the kind with built-in lights, hangs above the cash register, blank and partly disassembled. The knob on the bathroom door is limp and useless. At noon, Joe’s daughters catch glimpses of the daytime soaps whenever they can break free from taking orders.
The word “Kitchen” in the restaurant’s name says something about the proprietor’s cooking. So don’t go expecting to find dainty lamb chops rimmed by sweet-potato squiggles. Joe’s Caribbean food is a not-so-distant cousin of what you’d find in the back-country kitchens of Georgia, Mississippi, and both Carolinas.
No restaurant that counts fried dough among its specialty items could ever be accused of preciousness. Joe’s johnny cakes are perfectly round circles of dough that emerge from the oil golden-crusted and sweet-tasting. It’s refreshingly basic, versatile stuff, and if you order some, expect to tear and dip. Save for the fairly ordinary grilled kabobs, Joe’s serves meat saucy and wet. Stewed oxtail is basically a reprisal of the soup, only thicker and with bigger chunks of carrots and potatoes. Curried goat outclasses its chicken counterpart by virtue of its main ingredient: The texture and flavor of goat meat all but demand that it be stewed and aggressively spiced. If you’re in the mood for fowl, order it jerked. I prefer my jerk sticky, but Joe’s thin version seeps deep into the chicken meat, darkening its hue and lending it a flavor that falls somewhere on the sweet side of hot.
All entrees come with something that Joe’s does well—fluffed-up rice studded with black-eyed peas, stewed red or black beans, macaroni and real cheese. If you order a plate of pan-fried shrimp, you’ll be thankful for the extra sustenance; the shrimp are underseasoned, and if they ever had a prime, it’s past. Unfortunately, the rotis aren’t listed under the entrees and therefore come with only a meager side salad. The tortillalike dough holding together these Caribbean curry wraps tends to be dry; in an effort to avoid dust-mouth, I cut the things open and head straight to what’s inside, which is simply wasted effort. Order the straight curried goat instead.
Joe’s register is flanked by dessert trays—”temptation under glass,” in the words of the diner to my left. The carrot cake flirts with perfection—it’s moist and spicy like a good apple cider—and I’ve found that the tarts are worth looking into. When I inquire about one, one of Joe’s daughters responds, “Mom!” After she’s called once more, Mom emerges to explain that the dessert in question is a currant roll. It’s a flaky, sugar-crusted pastry wrapped around a bundle of fruit that produces its own molasseslike syrup. The daughter wonders aloud if currants are members of the raisin family. Mom thinks that sounds about right, but she’s not exactly sure. All she really knows is that those currant rolls are some of the best things she’s ever tasted.
Joe’s Caribbean Kitchen, Briggs Chaney Center, 13830 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, (301) 989-9105.
The down-home accents of Savoy’s food are offset by a space that suggests the luxe hideaway of a Bond-movie villain. Located in an underground space last occupied by a dead-on-arrival cigar bar, the dining room’s awash in red velvet, dark wood, and waiters whose outfits match the plates. The service matches neither the setting nor the prices. It takes our waiter two tries to bring the right wine, and three tries (“I told you last time, I didn’t order the Caesar”) and 20 minutes to bring the right salad. Thank goodness chef Rodney Renshaw, who’s worked with some bigwigs, including Jean-Louis Palladin, understands that Southern cuisine can only be dressed up so much. His hamhock cassoulet is thick with butter beans and fragrant with smoked meat. It reminds me of nothing so much as the red bean soup at Joe’s—only it costs twice as much.
Savoy, 1220 19th St. NW, (202) 955-4575.
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