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Jamaican fare that doesn't mince the island flavors

(ran SP edition)

It's past 7 p.m. when you're preparing to head home after work to a nearly empty refrigerator. You are bored with the ho-hum pick-up orders you've had lately and are looking for something different.

Four words to get your spouse's attention, if not score points: "cow foot" and "curried goat." These were among the more intriguing offerings on the menu I had grabbed recently at Taste of the Islands at 2231 34th Street S, and I called to get some feedback from the home front.

Don't ever again think about bringing a hoof home for dinner, I was instructed. But my wife also happens to have fairly reliable taste buds, so I knew I couldn't go wrong with the home-cooked West Indian fare offered at Taste of the Islands.

Tucked in the Lakeview Shopping Center, Taste of the Islands is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. But Yvonne Thompson and various family members have been serving up terrific Jamaican food there for nearly five years. She also makes it easy on people looking to grab lunch or dinner to go.

When chain restaurants are passing off bland chicken as "jerk chicken," Taste of the Islands offers is the genuine article for West Indian food.

The rice is cooked with coconut milk, and customers can buy Jamaican dance hall tapes along with their entrees. The jerk chicken is marinated at least 24 hours, smoked over charcoal, and spicy enough to raise your eyebrows. The cow feet go fast on weekends ("They're goooooood," Thompson insisted to a skeptical customer), and diners are better off not asking what's in the soup called mannish water.

I live more than 30 minutes north of downtown St. Petersburg, but Taste of the Islands is a quick and easy detour just off the 22nd Avenue S exit from I-275. I had phoned in my order and was told it would be ready in 10 minutes.

I arrived to the welcoming sound of reggae and smell of curry, thyme and myriad other spices spilling into the parking lot. My order was waiting at the counter in foam trays, piping hot and securely bagged. I bypassed the counter loaded with awesome-looking homemade cakes, but did grab a couple of Red Stripe beers from the cooler.

At home, it was clear we had too much food for two. The soups vary daily, and we ordered fish soup, which came in a foam cup of at least 16 hearty ounces. Loaded with chunks of red snapper, noodles, potatoes, carrots, and dumplings, it was a delicious spicy chowder. Our entrees included curried goat with roti (the goat tastes like lamb, and roti is a round flatbread) and jerk chicken.

Both were very tasty, with enough bones to remind you they're homemade. The firm, steamed vegetables and plantains that came with the entrees would have been sufficient sides.

But we also ordered fried dumplings (a good non-greasy mix of flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt); fried saltfish fritters (a greasy, but excellent deep-fried mix of batter and salted codfish that tasted less fishy than my wife and I expected). The disappointment was the cocoa bread, which was not homemade and had all the flavor of Wonder Bread. (Thompson later said it is usually eaten with Jamaican meat patties).

Thompson, a native of Jamaica who used to run a similar restaurant in London, makes it easy to bring home a hearty meal with some spice to it. Next time, we may just give that cow foot a taste.


Taste of the Islands

2231 34th Street S, St. Petersburg

Phone: 321-4157

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday

Consumers: Two adults

What we got: Fish soup; curried goat with roti bread; jerk chicken, with rice and vegetables; 2 fried dumplings; cocoa bread; saltfish fritter; 2 Red Stripe beers

What it cost: $22.47

Time it took: About 10 minutes

Pay with: Cash, all major credit cards