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May 18, 2006

Talk of the Table by Bob Doran - Redd's

Pulling off Highway 101 at the King Salmon exit, we were uncertain exactly where we'd find Redd's Caribbean Hut. Not that we were worried: King Salmon is not all that big a place. A hand-painted sign in bold colors at the foot of the off-ramp let me know we were on the right track, even though all it said was "Jerk Chicken" with an arrow. The word "jerk" refers to a classic Caribbean preparation for meat and fish, one that involves using a spicy rub (usually including allspice) as a marinade of sorts.

We found Redd's on the way into town you can't miss it: The green and gold fence is a dead giveaway. The structure, covered in shingles weathered by sea breezes, is not exactly a hut, although a bamboo awning suggests something tropical. There was no sign of the more traditional breakfast joint that used to occupy the building.

Out front, a guy in a trucker cap was painting an old metal newspaper box with green and red house paint. I knew he wasn't Redd, who I'd run into at the Co-op a few months back, not long after he opened his place. He was searching the Co-op for callaloo, the traditional Caribbean greens. (They didn't have any). "Redd's probably inside — unless he's out back," said trucker cap guy, pointing with his brush.

The hut's interior is a riot of red, green, gold and black paint (Jamaica's colors), along with flags, bamboo screens, tropical plants, a Bob Marley tapestry and, on the wall next to the business license, a framed portrait of HRM Emperor Haile Selassie. Reggae by Burning Spear throbbed from hidden speakers. A soccer game played silently on a TV high in a corner of the small dining area.

Hand-lettered signs over the counter listed the bill of fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner (served all day). Smaller signs described the drink menu and suggested specials including "Friday's Big Fish BBQ."

It wasn't Friday, so I settled on the jerk chicken dinner. My wife wasn't hungry enough for a full meal so she went with the "Caribbean chicken burger and potato sticks," a grilled boneless breast with Redd's red sauce served on a bun, with hand-cut fries on the side.

Her sandwich and my dinner both came served on paper plates lined with foil; mine was almost overflowing. A large bone-in breast with wing attached was smothered in Redd's flavorful sauce, spicy, but not too much so. Side dishes included a mound of red beans and white rice cooked in coconut milk, and a small salad, heavy on the cabbage. The salad was topped with a quartered tomato slice and a generous helping of callaloo, the spinach-like leaves just slightly spicy. A few potato sticks and fried slices of yam and plantain garnished the edge of the plate. It added up to a slice of the islands, particularly accompanied by the fresh-made ginger brew I ordered to wash it down — but it also proved too much to eat in one sitting. (I bundled the leftovers into a to-go box and had them for lunch the following day.)

We ran into Redd again outside, watering the bright red pansies in the yellow window boxes in front. Born in St. Louis, he credits his Virgin Islands-born grandparents as an influence on his cuisine. He and a couple of cooking partners, Arnold Heron from Jamaica and Floyd George from the West Indies, designed the menu, drawing on pan-Caribbean concepts like the jerk rub.

An ABC notice in the front window showed he is on the verge of getting his beer and wine license, so you can expect new additions to the juice cooler.

About that newspaper box: It's part of his plan for bringing the King Salmon neighborhood together. Before he came to Humboldt he lived on the Gulf Coast, where he ran a couple of newspapers and worked as a community organizer. A King Salmon newsletter is in the works, so that's why he's fixing up the box.

He invited us around back to show us that he's also been fixing up the back patio area, installing a collection of tables on a wooden deck shaded by umbrellas looking out on one of King Salmon's canals. (He lives on another.) He'd like to have reggae bands play there and wondered if I might put the word out for irie-type musicians to call him. (Done.) It's not hard to imagine sitting on the back porch sipping a bottle of Red Stripe, eating Redd's fine barbecue. Next time I think I'll try the fish.

And while we're talking Jamaican cooking, I should mention a note that came in last week from Tim Finnegan: "As I drove into Eureka today, I saw that the `Rasta Man Kitchen' and other signage was gone from Ijal's Jamaican Kitchen. Looks like it's gone out of business, since I saw no sign indicating a new location. I'm sorry to see that, since it was a tasty, inexpensive place to get vegetarian (or even, for my daughter, vegan) food." Tim wonders what happened.

I'll miss Ijal's too. I actually was their first paying customer, and had a few fine meat pies there over the couple of years it was open. When I ran into Ijal's Rasta chef, Mel, a few months ago at a reggae show, he told me he was looking for a buyer for the business, mainly because he wanted to go home to Jamaica. I'm guessing that's what happened. (If anyone knows otherwise, drop me a line.) His space at 4th and L streets — once the home of The Generous Armenian — now sports a sign promising a new Southeast Asian restaurant. I can hardly wait.


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