Andrene’s Cafe

It’s a Thursday when I find myself returning to “up and coming” Kennedy Street for a place that’s been on my list since…well, since the last time I was sorely let down by a Jamaican carry-out (looking at you, Spice). During the summer, my husband frequently badgers me to come visit and bring him a tasty lunch, like his own personal Red Riding Hood, and it’s our last day before another vacation, so I needed a break.

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Kennedy Street may be deserted during the day (and night–let’s be real), but inside Andrene’s it is hopping! The cashier manages to stay warm and friendly even while simultaneously taking my order, taking a phone order, calling out the food that’s ready, and gossiping with another West Indian man from the neighborhood. It’s pretty impressive. And, even though the combo menu specifies that there are no substitutions to the side orders of rice, plantains, and cabbage, she still gives me the option to change all of those. I leave with a bag, not knowing what magic is in store for me, and venture off through the woods…I mean…I-95…

I have to sit in traffic for close to an hour, so by the time arrive, I’m sure someone is about to comment about what big teeth I have because I am ready to eat anything that crosses my path. We pop the big platter in the microwave. Here’s how we made out for $27:

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Huge piece of coco bread, two beef patties, stewed green cabbage, rice and beans, plantains, oxtail, and jerk chicken. I will be upfront and let everyone know that we didn’t even come close to finishing this. The coco bread was mildly sweet, fluffy, and warm. The beef patties, although tepid by the time I arrived, were very savory with a sweet, flaky crust and a moist interior. The cabbage was a new thing for me. It was cooked so far that even Red Riding Hood’s toothless grandmother could have chewed it, but still had shape and a rich flavor. Plantains are always a winner in my book and these were no exception. The chicken was mostly moist with a few dry spots and a lot of bones, but had a good level of spice and a delicious sauce. The oxtail sauce was beyond delicious, and good for dipping bread in, although the meat itself was gristle-y in more than a few spots. Rice, as always, is rice, and there was a lot of it, although we barely ate any and still walked away from this meal overstuffed and with meat and bread left over.

Price: $10-15 per person.

Bottom Line: Andrene’s is good, and you can definitely get your money’s worth here, but I won’t rest until I find a truly awesome Jamaican restaurant. I know it’s out there.

Spark (at Engine Company 12)

Despite living, oh, five blocks from Spark’s predecessor, Fire House, we went there a total of twice in roughly three years of their being in business. I wouldn’t have even known that they had changed hands were it not for my in-laws, who, unbeknownst to us, were beloved regulars there. You’d think they were embarrassed to be seen with us or something, judging by how often they apparently ate here without even telling us about it.

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Spark hasn’t changed anything on the outside, or really even on the inside. But as we soon found out, looks can be deceiving. We all ordered drinks–I had the Burn Mark cocktail, which was a good combination of citrus and smoke. They had some fancy cocktails, and not too too pricey either. But come on, Spark, this is DC. You need some more craft beers and a more extensive liquor selection.

From the get-go, literally everyone in this place recognized my in-laws. The hostess recognized them. Our waitress recognized them. Two other waiters said hi. My father-in-law is on actual hugging terms with one waiter. The OWNER recognized them. Let me repeat–my husband and I live a seven-minute walk from this place and my in-laws took us here ONCE.

I asked for recommendations from our waitress and she recommended, with a lengthy description, basically everything on the menu. So…not actually that helpful. But I took some of her ideas into consideration. A little. In the end, I ordered the fry bread appetizer for the table as well as the lacquered chicken, oxtail, mac and cheese, and lollipop kale. Let’s start with the fry bread:

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This picture does little justice to it. But it was served in such ridiculous trappings that I felt like that photo was also not representative and I wanted to show off the sides. The bread itself: hot, fluffy, fried goodness. The cucumber slaw: tart, refreshing, oniony. The coconut collards: what is this delicious sorcery? How can collard greens actually be this good? Creamy, coconutty, stewed, sweet. The chickpeas: the worst of the three things, but only by unfair comparison. They were curry-spiced and tasty, if slightly too al-dente for me. They also served us some homemade Scotch Bonnet sauce (you can see a smear of it on the far right of my plate). It was tart and packed some heat, although for hot sauce aficionados such as us, it was not life-changing.

It wasn’t long after that that our main courses arrived, on yet more silly non-plates. Behold:

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For small plates, these were an extremely decent size, particularly the mac and cheese. We were not lacking for meat either. Every person at the table had a different favorite dish, which speaks to the quality of everything. I can only resort to descriptions. The chicken (far left) was not only plentiful, but also fall-off-the-bone with a sweet, crispy skin. I appreciated the serving of the legs like this since they were substantially meatier than wings, and much easier to eat. The oxtail (next to the chicken) was incredible. The exterior was caramelized and crunchy, but underneath that lay a layer of scrumptiously melty fat and flavorful beef. The lollipop kale was so crunchy and delicious, with a salty sweet seasoning that even my kale-hating spouse adored. The mac and cheese at the bottom of the photo looks huge. You might think that this is due to perspective, but in fact it was actually that big. It’s made with long spaghetti, which I gave the side-eye to until I actually tried it. It’s perfect for sopping up the cheese sauce. The top and edges were crispy. The sauce was cheesy in a way I’ve never been able to make my own mac. Spark calls this “smoked” cheese and I guess it very well could be, but it didn’t taste particularly smoky. It doesn’t even matter, though, because it was just so delicious.

I don’t normally get dessert but I wasn’t ready for this meal to end. Spark has a whole list of desserts that, if I’m being honest, are pretty gimmicky. Perhaps the most gimmicky of all is something they call “Play With Fire” which is served “Russian Roulette style.” “What is this and will I die?” we asked our waitress. She explained to us that the chef makes chocolate chip cookie dough with a few pieces of jalapeno in it. You order a cookie under the assumption that you may get a piece of jalapeno, but by her estimation, our odds were 9-to-1 in favor of receiving a non-spicy cookie. The four of us, feeling lucky, ordered one apiece.

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These were solid cookies, served once again on a slice of log for no apparent reason, and topped with spicy candied bacon. We ate slowly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive pepper. Alas, we were all let down (except my mother-in-law, who I think was banking on not receiving the pepper and kept claiming that she tasted something spicy). For two bucks each, you couldn’t get a better, bigger, more satisfying dessert than this, although I think I would probably pay a dollar extra to be guaranteed the privilege of the jalapeno.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: It’s hard to say whether the food or the staff was better, but either way, Spark could not possibly let you down. After all of that raving, though, I have to say that my favorite part of the entire experience was the fairly relaxed speed. It was like Island time meets DC time. I could enjoy my drink, enjoy the company, and take my time instead of being rushed through everything, but I also never felt neglected. It was a privilege to eat here and I can’t wait to come back. Maybe my in-laws will actually invite us sometime.

Spice

Spice is a little Jamaican carry-out place I found while perusing google maps for a place to pick up lunch on the way to our Saturday afternoon outing to Sandy Spring Adventure Park. After seeing a number of Caribbean carry-outs in the area, and thus getting my heart set on jerk chicken, I settled on this one, mainly due to a) proximity to my driving route, and b) it opened at 11 rather than 11:30.

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We ordered a half-chicken, a beef patty, and the coco bread. I wanted to get my share of yummy Jamaican specialties, but also not go overboard at lunch. Friendly people, tables to sit at inside, good-size menu; all signs pointed to yum.

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The chicken was mostly moist, although it included a lot of gristle and was kind of (read: extremely) cold. The jerk sauce was definitely flavorful, but once again left me wanting more heat (both literal and figurative). The patty was good, but ultimately was just a normal beef patty. It was flaky and chock-full of ground beef, but it was not particularly well-seasoned, and I’m not convinced that it was made in-house. The coco bread was moist and flavorful, and would have paired well with the jerk sauce if I’d had more of it. I wanted to like it, I really did. But it just wasn’t anything better than okay. I also realize that at this point, I sound like some masochist whose only pleasure comes from eating overly spicy food. I swear I’m not.

…Well, maybe.

…But if you, reader, are averse to spicy food, you should probably just stop reading now.

Price: <$10 per person

Bottom line: Due to low cost, this place had a high return on investment, so it wasn’t a total loss. I got a solid chicken meal with standard jerk sauce, so I guess I can’t complain. Will look for other Jamaican restaurants in the future.