SPRING HILL — Many palates throughout Hernando County know and savor Jamaican cuisine, says Rohan Spencer, a native islander. And, since September, Spencer has been filling the demand for the slightly bitey, often tropical flavors at his Ocho Rios Cafe.
For the unacquainted, when Spencer can carve a few minutes from tending to customers, the new entrepreneur also will serve up a brief lesson in the ingredients and tastes unique to his homeland.
"A lot of people from up North know Jamaican cuisine," he said, giving a tug to his crisp red chef's jacket as he sat down at one of four tables in his mainly takeout cafe. "A lot of people go to Jamaica on vacation, so are acquainted. And there's the Jamaican community. There's enough people to sustain this business here."
Jerk chicken and oxtail dinners are his customers' favorites.
"Jerk spices are Scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, scallion and pimento," Spencer enumerated.
He uses the scorchingly hot Scotch bonnet sparingly.
"Traditionally, jerk is really hot and spicy. I make it not overwhelmingly hot. … Here in Spring Hill, I try not to go overboard, (but) more tasty."
Oxtail, rarely found on a local menu, "is addictive," said Spencer, 40. "It's very tasty. I cook it very tender. Not many people know how to cook it correctly."
To jerk rub he adds tomatoes and onions.
"I take Jamaican recipes and make them my own," Spencer said.
He's big on dry rubs for meats, letting the spices impart their flavors overnight in his several commercial coolers.
One of those meats, also seldom seen at local dining establishments, is goat. Spencer serves it curried and, more importantly, devoid of characteristic stringy sinew.
Jamaican fare includes pastries, savory and sweet. They come filled with spicy or mild beef, curried or jerk chicken, and mixed vegetables. Among the sweets: gizzarda, a baked pastry shell filled with ginger-flavored coconut; bulla cake, hard pastry shells, gingered and sweet; and rock cakes, crunchy outside, fluffy inside with coconut throughout.
Especially in demand for Christmas and New Year's is rum cake, a rich, dark fruitcake soaked in famous Jamaican rum.
You can add your own rum for New Year's celebrations to such canned or bottled tropical beverages as Jamaican cream, pineapple ginger, reggae medley or boisson a la vanilla.
On Saturdays, Ocho Rios serves up breakfasts of national dishes: cod fish with ackee, a soft but savory tropical fruit, and cod fish with callaloo, a leafy vegetable also known as "water spinach."
His Jamaican cooking, Spencer said, "I learned from Mom. Mom and Dad had jobs. I was the one at home who had to make meals."
He came to the United States, to Brooklyn, N.Y., at age 13.
"Grandmother brought a lot of us here … so we could have better opportunities," he said.
Spencer's cousin, Maurice Spencer, 35, works with the owner in the kitchen.
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"I worked in restaurants since I was a teen," Rohan Spencer said.
Even back then, he and his buddies planned restaurant careers. One, Richard Stewart, opened a place in Brooklyn, where Spencer learned do's and don'ts of the business side. Stewart, now a partner, handles ordering and other online business aspects for Ocho Rios. Another buddy, Nathan Robinson of Spring Hill, is an investor in the enterprise.
"The thing I like best" Spencer said, "is knowing that I own my own business, that I can provide for my family."
With unending thanks to his grandmother — "God bless her soul."
Contact Beth Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.