Restaurant review: Ena's Caribbean Kitchen

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

"Large jerk?"

"That's me!"

This verbal exchange recently occurred between an enquiring lady and me. See, like Prince Charming seeking a snug fit for that glass slipper, she was searching for a particular person.

OK, whether I in fact match the "jerk" description (gonna plead the Fifth on that one), I can certify that the large order of wildly spicy Jamaican-style chicken cooked for me at Ena's Caribbean Kitchen easily qualified. For a blurry moment or two, I actually thought the consume-at-your-own-risk poultry dish might melt down my molars. Yet I loved every consciousness-altering, endorphin-splurging second of it.

Open more than a decade, Ena's is a locally beloved, family-run place so popular for its homespun and racy Jamaican grub that it entertains a steady stream of take-out business. That's not to say Ena's is a complete drag to hang out in. Yeah, it's kinda small, there's no booze and all the counter-ordered food is delivered in Styrofoam boxes. But the friendly and comfy-enough Ena's is spotlessly clean, brashly decorated in the yellow, black and green of the Jamaican flag and further adorned with framed Jamaican currency, a Jasper Johns knock-off and Power 107 type-tunes.

Cuisine-wise, Ena's speaks with a believable patois. Put differently, while Ena's rustically prepared and spicily aggressive best stuff brings some genuine Island smoke to the party, even Ena's lesser fare errs on the side of bold.

Let's return to that terrific Jerk Chicken ($9.50). Both fall-off-the-bone stewy and with a darkly grill-crusted exterior, like many proteins here, it's roughly hacked into skin-on and bone-in pieces most easily eaten with your soon-to-be-sauce-soaked fingers. For flavor, it uses a blasting cap of salt to detonate a Scotch bonnet and thyme-powered explosion with a lingering sting and fruity and minerally after-burns.

As with all entrees, the chicken comes with two cooling-off sides like cabbage (really simple, really good, sauteed to semi-firm and semi-sweet); heavy-duty rice and peas (in true Jamaican style, "peas" are red beans); comforting, scratch-made mac-n-cheese; fried sweet plantains (a tad soft, a bit oily); a massive doorstop of semi-crumbly, pretty good cornbread (not too cakey, not too sweet); and righteous potato salad (creamy with mayo, but with pickly accents and a fine celery crunch).

My other two favorite main courses were the unusual Kingfish ($9, a giant and meaty fish steak that was like something between a mackerel and salmon with a hint of halibut) in Escovitch Sauce (light and giardiniera-ish with vinegar, chilies, peppercorns and vegetables) and a potent Curry Goat ($9.50, a mean green, potato-smoothed stew with boney, unctuous, somewhat chewy but deeply flavored meat).

While not a bit incendiary, braised Oxtails ($10.50) presented a tough-to-eat challenge. Don't get me wrong, cooked with butter beans (I'd like more) and in a mild, dark and black peppery gravy/broth, they tasted quite good. But navigating through thick "O"s of bone to get at scraps of cartilaginous meat was a lot of work for the payoff.

By comparison, Brown Stew Chicken ordered a la carte ($5) was a better deal. It was four or five smallish pieces of yardbird swamped in the same mild but satisfying and beefy sauce as the oxtails.

My main beef with Ena's version of Callaloo ($8, think Jamaican spinach) was that the salty, slightly smoky and mildly bitter leaves cooked with onions, peppers and wisps of Scotch bonnet would make a better side dish than entree. Still, like all of Ena's offerings, it never bored.

Ena's Caribbean Kitchen

2444 Cleveland Ave., North Side