By David Minsky
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The most famous places to partake of jerked pork and chicken are at the pits of street vendors in Jamaica's Boston Bay, located near the city of Port Antonio. Closer to home you can get some at Sango, on Wednesday, that is, as most of the entrees here are featured as rotating daily specials. Monday, for instance, is cow-foot day; red bean soup is served on Tuesday; and one of Thursday's treats is stewed peas. While this system may prove frustrating if you have driven to Sango in a jerk mood but get there on a nonjerk day, it's actually a good way to ensure that the meals are freshly cooked. Sango's jerked pork is exceptional, its thick chunks of slowly cooked meat punched up with pungent spices. It's hard to believe that these very same ingredients were once used solely to preserve meats, not flavor them. I've never been to Jamaica, but I have sampled a fair number of jerks. Sango's is easily the best I've had.
On Wednesday Sango also serves pepper pot soup, similar in taste to spinach soup -- not surprising, given that it's made with the spinachlike callaloo leaf. Large-cut chunks of yam, cho-cho (chayote squash), and stewed beef, along with a very dense dumpling, lend a heartiness to the broth. Monday's beef soup with pumpkin is really pumpkin soup with beef; like pepper pot, it's an Arawak concoction. It has a smooth consistency, soothing spices, and starchy ingredients like those in stews.
Sango's version of ackee and codfish doesn't deviate from the original. The creamy fruit is scrambled with salted cod, tomatoes, onions, scallions, and peppers. Once you get over the initial foreignness of the ackee, it's quite tasty and surprisingly satisfying. Sango serves it with a bland boiled banana, a sweet and starchy yellow yam, and a dumpling of density similar to -- but of a different shape than -- the one in the pepper pot soup.
Another staple of the Jamaican diet is escovitch, which derives from the Spanish method of pickling cooked fish called escabeche. Islanders prepare it by first frying the fish, then marinating it in vinegar, onions, carrots, and Scotch bonnet peppers. Like jerk, escovitch started out as a means of preservation, though you would never know this from Sango's version; they don't so much marinate the fried fish (kingfish or snapper, depending on availability) as dress it in marinade right before serving. This eliminates the pickling potential of the vinegar but produces a hotter, crisper fillet than the original recipe. The dressing is plenty potent, even as a last-minute addition. Fish escovitch is served only as a main course. (No Jamaican appetizers are available at Sango. You can, however, order a starter of chicken wings escovitch from the Chinese side of the menu.)
In addition to the jerked pork mentioned earlier, Sango serves several other Jamaican meat entrees: Tender oxtail discs with lima beans in a deep, beef-based sauce; a giant breast of succulent roast chicken in a dark brown sauce; chicken stew -- hacked pieces of moist bird in yet another robust brown sauce, this one fortified with garlic and the cooking liquid of beans; and curried goat, aswirl in a muddy green sauce so potently flavored as to make the goat indistinguishable in taste from tender braised beef. This delectably piquant goat stew was the hit of the night at our table.
While the soups here are strewn with stewed vegetables, the stews themselves contain only a stray scallion or random potato. They are, however, accompanied by a choice of white rice or rice and gungo (pigeon) peas, plus two surfboard-shape wedges of fried plantains. An oil and white vinegar-dressed salad of soggy iceberg lettuce and canned corn also comes with dinner (one per person, and one slightly larger serving for two people; I never observed how many salads, or how large a single salad, was presented to a threesome).
I'd like to recommend that you order some of that famous Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee to seal your meal at Sango. I'd like to, but since they don't serve Blue Mountain (or any other coffee) here, I can't. Nor do I suggest a dessert of the gelatinous sweet potato pudding, which is overpowered by allspice. A thick wedge of bread pudding is considerably better, hinting of vanilla, nutmeg, raisins, and rum. For a take-home treat, try the coconut drops: cookie-size confections composed of fresh coconut nuggets, ginger, brown sugar, and nuts.
Sango makes some of its beverages on the premises, like the purportedly aphrodisiacal planter's moss, comprising seaweed, condensed milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The rice-pudding flavor is fine, but the consistency is too much like pudding, which I found disconcerting. Carrot juice, with condensed milk and rum, is smoother; ginger beer, a soft drink imported from Jamaica, is the only drink that quenches the thirst and goes well with the food. It's also the only type of beer that you'll find here. Sango doesn't serve alcohol.
If the lack of waitstaff or the thought of eating from Styrofoam is unappealing, an alternative is to visit the second Sango, started up two years ago in Pembroke Pines. This 80-seat restaurant offers the same Jamaican-Chinese menu, generous portions, and popular prices as the Perrine location, plus beer, wine, real plates, and a waitstaff.
Sango Jamaican and Chinese Restaurant
9485 SW 160th St, Perrine; 305-252-0279. Lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. till 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 9:30 p.m.
Pepper pot soup
Pork lo mein