If the family affectionately calls your wife "macaroni mouth," DON'T take her to a Caribbean restaurant for dinner. There is virtually nothing there for her (other than my charming company, of course). I mean, one of the explanations at the top of the menu at Hibiscus Caribbean Restaurant on Brookside is about the Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper. Dude! Little on this earth is spicier!
Pepper heat is measured in Scovill units. That is the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. There actually was a guy named Scovill, who invented the whole pepper heat-measuring thing, but unfortunately he died of massive internal blistering and de-hydration from sweating too much. OK, that's not true, but there really WAS a guy named Scoville, and he really did come up with the scale.
A poblano, for instance, has about 2,000su, a jalapeno has about 8,000su, the cayenne pepper has about 50,000, and the Scotch Bonnet and Habanero peppers? Well, they have approximately 500,000. Get it now? And before you go thinking you're all bad because you can eat a Habanero, the hottest pepper in the world is from India, called the Naga Jolokia and has between 800,000 and 1,100,000 Scovill Units! People have died from eating as few as eight! It's nickname? The "Ghost Pepper."
Anyway, my point is that once we got past the tasty little Salt Fish Fritters -- crispy and savory donut hole sorts of things with salted, dried cod and a sweet dipping sauce, and the Jamaican Patty, roughly a savory Caribbean version of a Cornish Pastie, filled with meat and veggies (the Scottish version has potato), my wife was pretty much done for.
It was fairly vacant the night we were there (a Sunday), and we were a bit surprised at how long it took for things to come out of the kitchen. It's a huge menu for a little place, and I am going to give the chef the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe his assistant was off that night, or someone called in sick or something. It was a good seven or eight minutes between the time I ordered the chicken-filled pastry and the waiter came back to tell me they were out of chicken and ask if I would like the beef or veggie ones. It was another seven or eight minutes before the fritters came out, and another five or six before the pastries finally arrived. Not a good start. At any rate, I tell you this as a heads up. It was a very nice evening, we were sitting outside in a small patio area in front of the restaurant, and were not in any hurry, but in a different circumstance it would have been a bit frustrating. Our waiter was a very nice young man who hadn't worked there very long, but guided us through the menu pretty well in spite of it, based on what customers have told him about items.
As I mentioned, Hibiscus has a very ambitious menu, and there was a lot to sift through before making our dinner choices. Prices are all over the map, but generally run from an average single appetizer price of approximately $7 to an average entrée price of about $14 or $15 with a high in the low $20 range for the Montego Bay Surf 'n' Turf, described as "A tender and juicy 9oz char-grilled marinated sirloin and succulent jumbo gulf shrimp seasoned and grilled to your desire for $21.99," and the entree my wife finally settled on: The Fisherman's Special. A 9 oz tilapia filet, with a very generous amount of shrimp, herbs, spices, vegetables and a light cream and butter sauce. It came in at $19.99. The whole fish version runs $24.99.
A jerk salmon with shrimp and spicy pepper sauce was the same price, and there was an Orange Citrus Whole Red Snapper at market price. That essentially means "don't ask if you can't afford it!"
A fair percentage of the items on the menu are jerk prepared. This is both a process and a spice combination, and yields a tender, moist, sweet and spicy flavor that is indicative of much of the food from Jamaica and the Caribbean. If you are sensitive to spices and heat, jerk is probably not for you. Removing the pepper from the mix vastly changes the end product in terms of flavor as well as texture, and just doesn't work out very well. Choose from jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk fish and jerk shrimp from that section. Other traditional dishes include several Caribbean Curries, and although they are similar to their Indian cousins, tend to be a bit fruitier and have a layer of sweetness that the Asian versions don't. Since the Caribbean was settled by everyone from the Dutch, to the French, to the Spanish, to the Italians, to the East Asians and everyone else in between, there are about a jillion different versions of this dish.
A section of authentic Jamaican dishes caught my eye, including the very traditional Jamaican dish called Ackee and Salt Fish. Ackee is the national fruit, and is used and consumed everywhere. The handling and preparation is a bit dicey, since certain parts of the fruit shouldn't be eaten, and the parts that are edible must be boiled for up to 30 minutes before further preparation.
In the end, I opted for another traditional dish, Braised Oxtail with Butter Beans. It was served with fried plantains. Less sweet and higher in starch, this cousin of the banana is actually not appropriate for raw consumption, and is used more like a potato or side starch than as a fruit. Having said that, it does have many stages of ripening, and in its final, fairly black stage does develop enough sugar to be utilized for desserts and so forth.
The oxtail itself was tender, very flavorful and really good. The beans were fantastic, and served mixed with potatoes and carrots and on a bed of greens. This was a really nice dish. If you've never eaten oxtail, be prepared to work a bit for the sweet tender meat since you are literally eating it out from between the vertebrae of the tail, and it is not readily accessible. It is worth the small amount of work though, and I do recommend it.
Additionally, this is one of the few menus I have found locally that sports a goat dish on the printed menu. Some offer it on certain days of the week, or as a special, but it's on Hibiscus' menu all the time. The chef (a native Jamaican from Kingston) stews his with carrots, potatoes, and curry, and if it is prepared with the same attention as the oxtail, I'm sure it is excellent. I love goat (and curry) when prepared properly, but the oxtail edged it out this night.
Hibiscus has a vegetarian section as well, with bean and rice and vegetable dishes.
A variety of soups, salads, and wraps take up another entire page of menu real estate, ranging from $8-13.
Of note is a sauce called the Hibiscus sauce. It's a sweet and slightly spicy sauce that is served with many of the dishes and reminiscent of another sauce from the south called Jezabel sauce. Often based in apple or quince jelly, and whisked with spices and other ingredients, it has a great cooling and sweetening effect on many dishes. We were licking the bowl on that one!
Of dubious note was the Callaloo. A very traditional dish from the Caribbean, callaloo is a vegetable resembling spinach and prepared in as many different ways as the Italians prepare red sauce. Our favorite has coconut milk to smooth it out and add extra creaminess. Most often in the U.S., spinach is substituted, and I am pretty sure that was the case here. Unfortunately I also think it was canned, as it had a bit of that metallic flavor that sometimes derives from a can. Additionally, it was pretty bland, and overall a bit of a disappointment I'm sorry to say.
Hibiscus is a small to medium sized place tucked in between Mecca Coffee to the south and Ciao and a Tattoo parlor to the north in the 3300 block of South Peoria. There are a large amount of musical and dance events that take place there, as well as a pretty long bar with lots of seats and variety liquors and beers.
The atmosphere is fun and hospitable, and worth a trip. Or two. Or three.
Hibiscus Caribbean Bar & Grill
3316 S. Peoria
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday 11am-2am; Sunday 5pm-Midnight
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