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Jamaican cuisine in a convivial atmosphere

The interior of Di Banana Boat may not evoke its tropical namesake, but it's hard to be island-like within an outdated strip shopping center across the street from Hickory Grove Baptist Church. No matter, it is what Di Boat brings to the table that will bring you back.This small bare bones shop offers a choice between table and take out, but all orders are taken at the counter and food is served in styrofoam containers. The atmosphere is convivial and the prices are hard to beat. Owners Sean McLaughlin and his fiancee Sandy Harris opened this Jamaican gem in the fall of 2000. McLaughlin had owned another Jamaican restaurant, the Caribbean Corner, with his father from 1995 until 1998. But that location within Freedom Mall limited the kind of food McLaughlin wanted to make. He says, "The mall had certain hours of operation. They opened at 8am in the morning, but some of the dishes we make take at least three hours to prepare. It was frustrating."

McLaughlin, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, decided to relocate to Charlotte while contemplating transferring from a university in New York to the University of South Carolina. "I was going back and forth through Charlotte. It's a big city with potential," he remembers thinking.

McLaughlin also estimates the Caribbean expatriate population in the Charlotte area to be about 40,000. He also owns Jamco Caribbean Wholesale Company and some of these imported items, such as Jerk mixtures and island spices, are sold in the shop. He also wholesales to large grocery stores such as Food Lion and Safeway.

Island food, especially Jamaican dishes, has an enthusiastic following. Though primarily known for its "fruits and roots," Caribbean cuisine varies according to the country's history. Jamaica, the third largest island of the Greater Antilles of the West Indies, has been a melting pot, literally. From the native Arawak people came barbecue. The Spanish brought livestock and methods of cooking. Plants such as ackee, the Jamaican national fruit, were introduced from West Africa during the 1700s. Coffee was introduced in the early 1700s but didn't take off until the 1830s when freed slaves began to cultivate the plants in the Blue Mountain. British rule brought meat and vegetable turnovers while Chinese and Indian laborers introduced stir fries and curries respectively.

The key ingredients to Jamaican cuisine are tropical fruits, fish, chicken, vegetables, and pepper-based spices. Jamaican Rastafarians eat a primarily vegetarian diet. The famous Jamaican Jerk is a combination of allspice (aka Jamaica Pepper), scotch bonnet chile and Jamaican hot chile (both exceedingly hot), thyme, garlic, onions and spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cloves. The jerk seasoning can either be used as a rub or blended with a liquid to create a marinade.

The Jerk Chicken here has the extraordinary taste of charcoal. McLaughlin said he has perfected this technique using lava rocks on a gas grill. He prefers, however, to use charcoal and at a recent bike rally in Charlotte he served jerk chicken grilled over charcoal. Everything here tasted good, with perhaps the exception of the dumplings, or fried bread, which just tasted like, well, fried bread. Another entree, curried chicken, had tender cuts of fragrant meat nestled into a large portion of white rice and red beans that proved both hearty and soothing.

The menu covers a range from ackee and saltfish (cod) ($10.50) for brunch to cocoa bread sandwiches ($4) and curried goat and ox tail entrees, both $9 for the large portion, $7 for the smaller portion. The owners, who are also the cooks, are quick to substitute for vegetarians. The drink list includes Red Stripe beer, of course, Jamaican sodas, carrot juice, and Irish Moss, a drink rumored to enhance a man's performance and promote overall well being. No coffee, though.

Patties ($2.50) are the Jamaican take on the empanada and a staple in most Caribbean eateries. These treats, however, are not made in house, but are imported from Jamaica. The Callaloo (leaves of the taro root) patty has a lip-searing heat, requiring the prerequisite swig of Jamaican "cola champagne" to tame the buds.

Desserts are made by Harris. The most popular is her sweet potato cheesecake, but this is frequently sold out by dinner because people come in and buy the whole cake. But no worries, the carrot cake is deliciously moist and infused with spice.

There is nothing fancy here, not even the prices. Di Banana Boat seems to be on a steady course to serve up old fashioned, home-styled Jamaican dishes.

Eaters' Digest Brixx Uptown is offering half-priced bottles of wine on Sundays. Downtown location only.

The Center City Green Market returns to Seventh Street between College and Brevard Streets, across from Reid's Fine Foods and the Levine Museum of the New South on Saturday, May 10. The market will have seafood from, a local seafood purveyor owned by Michael LaVecchia, produce from Unity Farms and Creekside Farms, fresh flowers, and more. The Green Market will run Saturdays through September 20 from 8am until 1pm. In addition, twice a month the market will host a "Market Spectacular." The first is a salute to moms on May 10. With help from the Community School of the Arts, kids can create beautiful works of art for Mother's Day at no cost. Kids can also get their faces painted (free) and enjoy live music from award-winning children's songwriter Shana Banana.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance.

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