Welcome to Dining On A Dime, a feature in which Lucas Kwan Peterson surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive and, well, quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
Natraliart Market & Restaurant has been serving up genuine Jamaican cuisine for close to 30 years in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles (N.B. This particular place is two blocks north of the 10 Freeway and, therefore, technically does not qualify as South LA. I realize this, and am hoping you'll make an exception. It is a special The Five Days of Meat edition, and meaty goodness positively oozes from this restaurant's pores.). To that end: what does "genuine" even mean, anyway? Especially when it's carelessly bandied about in restaurant reviews by people who could not possibly recognize a "real" dining experience of a particular country's cuisine?
In the case of Natraliart, it's just a feeling. Opening the opaque metal door and stepping into the restaurant is a small epiphany. On the right, a stucco wall is painted with a massive, brightly colored map of Jamaica; to the left is short hallway leading to the sister business, a small market selling Caribbean foodstuffs. A fan is blowing, and a tv drones in the background. To the fore, huge white letters against a blue wall dotted with photos announce: "Jucy's Wall of Fame." Jucy, the chef and proprietor, has owned Natraliart since its inception (indeed, regulars know the restaurant simply as "Jucy's"). He greets each customer with an easy friendliness before retreating to the kitchen to cook up each sumptuous dish.
Jerk chicken, next to ackee and saltfish (which is available but, alas, I did not get around to trying), is the dish probably most closely associated to Jamaican cuisine. Jucy has its preparation down to a beautiful science. The meat, while lacking the char and grill marks one might associate with jerk chicken, is nonetheless immaculately tender and well-seasoned. Each smoky bite tastes faintly of cloves and cinnamon; the spice brings fairly little heat, however, which is why the dish is perfectly complemented by a thin, vinegary hot sauce that comes on the side in a small metal cup and brings a welcome kick to the proceedings.
The chicken curry was ever-so-slightly dry but the flavor of the sauce was deep and warm. It was not at all goopy as we've come to expect from many curries, but was almost broth-like in its consistency, tasting of pepper and turmeric. The goat curry comes in a thicker gravy, and it is truly tremendous -- this is the dish you want to try. Dense and buttery, it resembles a hearty stick-to-your-ribs kind of stew that you would associate with a cold climate, not necessarily the tropics. The chunks of goat are pink and tender, not gamey, and fully saturated with flavor; even the bones and bits of cartilage, which over hours of cooking have adopted the aspect and texture of an old gum eraser, are delicious and worth gnawing on for a bit.
Other winners include the oxtails & beans and red snapper. Most meats, with the exception of pork (Rastafari do not eat pork, and while not all Jamaicans are Rastafarian, the influence is strong. Hence, no pork.), can be found on menu, which changes daily. Jucy's, incidentally, probably holds the record for smallest disparity in price between small and large portions. Most plates run $11-12 for a small -- the large size is about a dollar more. May as well get the large. Chase your meal with a carrot juice, made freshly in-house, a glass of sorrel, or a can of coconut water purchased from the adjoining market, and you'll feel like you never left Jamaica -- assuming you've been there, of course. — Lucas Kwan Peterson
Natraliart Market and Restaurant is located at 3426 W Washington Blvd. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The market is open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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