Cleveland has a handful of decent Jamaican restaurants — and they all seem to stick to the same playbook. They tend to be located on the fringes of neighborhoods, taking advantage of cheap rents and ample street parking. They are almost exclusively carry-out operations with few if any tables and about as much ambiance as the waiting room at the auto repair shop. When it comes to the food, diners can expect large portions of tasty, if repetitious, stews served with rice and beans.
Ocho Rios, a newer place in South Collinwood, fits that description to a T — except for the part about the food. I kept waiting for the downer in a long line-up of dishes and it just never came. Jerk chicken, curry goat, oxtails, beef patty, curry chicken — each dish managed to outshine the last in terms of flavor, texture and pure satisfaction. This is the kind of food and place that can quickly became an addiction; I found myself here two times in as many days.
Ocho Rios is run by Brian Burnett, who was born and raised in Jamaica. He moved to the States when he was 19, earning a living by working in numerous area restaurants. When his mother grew ill, he returned home with her to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, where she later passed away. After the funeral, he came back to Cleveland and opened up this restaurant as a sort of tribute.
"From the left side of the menu to the right, I cook everything, every day," Burnett says, pointing to the expansive chalkboard wall menu. He arrives around 6 a.m. to cook and stays clear up until 10 p.m. He has help running the front of the operation.
Burnett's stews are out of this world. The oxtails ($9.50/medium) taste like the pot roast of one's dreams, with the tastiest part of the cow reduced to quivering blobs of pudding-soft meat. Sure, there are bones, but the meat falls so easily from them that it's hardly an issue. The same holds true for the curry goat ($8.50/medium), with is like a wilder version of the oxtail. Morsels of supple, mildly gamy meat and buttery cartilage come clean off the bones with a gentle suck. Both sauces are intense and complex, boasting the kind of heat that creeps up on you until the point when a cold compress would be like a gift from Jah.
Burnett's jerk chicken ($8.50/med.) contains roughly half a bird, cut into smallish pieces. The skin is dark with spices and the meat — all of it, including the breast — meltingly moist and tender. The spice rub and sauce are floral, almost tropical, with too many flavors to nail down. There's heat too, but you're eating too fast to notice. Like all of the stews, the meat is served alongside a heaping portion of rice and beans, which is topped with a pleasantly sweet-tart warm cabbage slaw. Don't forget to ask for extra gravy for the rice, which will be a ladle of whatever goodness that particular meat has been swimming in.
Here's the crazy part: Burnett is a vegetarian. He doesn't even eat half the stuff he makes and others covet. But apparently that doesn't get in the way of the finished product.
"I got a gift," he says matter-of-factly. "Ain't nobody teach me nothing about cooking."
Burnett also concocts his own Caribbean-style beverages like tart and refreshing sorrel ($3), thick and sweet soursop ($3) and Irish Moss ($3), which is prized more for its libido-enhancing properties than its taste or texture. It's kind of like drinking honey-sweetened Vaseline through a straw. About the only thing that Burnett doesn't make here are the beef patties ($2.50), but they are still worth buying by the sack as they're hot, fresh and zesty as hell.
Like most Jamaican restaurants, Ocho Rios doesn't carry everything all the time. Odds are good that they will be out of the one thing you drove clear across town to get. The hours, too, might change without notice. Things can move slowly when there's a line, which is becoming more and more frequent by the day. And then there's the room, a shanty-style storefront where the employees mainly stay behind the protective acrylic window.
But Ocho Rios isn't a depressing place. Island tunes play on the stereo, World Cup soccer fades in and out on the fuzzy television, and a Bible open to Psalms rests on the lone table. Many cooks speak of passion, purpose and God-given gifts, but rare are the places where you can actually taste it. Here, you can taste it in the tail of a steer.
1007 Ivanhoe Rd., 216-249-6246.