Cool Runnings in Northeast Portland offers a taste of Jamaica
Right now it's only about 10 degrees cooler in Portland than in Kingston, Jamaica. And, after an Oregon winter, it actually seems hot. It's the time of year when shorts are acceptable at work, windows start to stay open all night and people are dusting off their Bob Marley and Peter Tosh CDs.
Even if you wouldn't be caught dead listening to reggae the rest of the year, the first warm days of summer make even the grumpiest of us want to 'get together and feel all right.'
This is reason enough to try out Cool Runnings, the Jamaican- and Caribbean-themed restaurant smack on the busiest block in the Beaumont neighborhood. The food isn't great, but the bright yellow walls, 20-foot ceilings and frosted Pilsener glasses filled with Red Stripe beer are appealing in these late days of spring.
Cool Runnings' owners, Cal and Heidi Ferris, haven't been to Jamaica, but Cal, the primary chef, did go to Humboldt State University in Northern California, the next best thing. The menu and cuisine are definitely more collegiate than cultural, although there are some authentic Jamaican dishes offered, such as curried goat.
Appetizers run the gamut from standard (Caesar salad, chowder) to island (plantains sautŽed in rum, lime and brown sugar). Avoid the stuffed Portobello mushrooms, especially if you suffer from nightmares. An overgrown mushroom the size of a toddler's face is covered with melted provolone. The rubbery texture of the provolone doesn't adhere to the slimy mushroom skin, sliding off and leaving a greasy gloss in its wake instead. The whole creation is drowned in balsamic vinegar 'sauce' and seasoned with giant sprigs of sage too large to integrate into the dish.
A large entree menu is divided into two parts: sandwiches and main courses. The sandwiches are generous, but all can be ordered as a half. There's a nice selection of sides that come with the sandwiches: Cajun potato salad, fruit, green salad, slaw or soup.
This is a good opportunity to try alligator without wrestling with a whole gator steak. Alligator tastes like a hybrid of halibut and chicken, so it has a great consistency for blackening Ñ moist and firm enough to withstand the heat of searing without falling apart or getting tough. Ask for it on panini, which is bakery-fresh, instead of on the tough, institutional baguette.
The jerk chicken sandwich is a good choice for those less exotically inclined. Jerk chicken has a tendency to get stringy with all the treatments it goes through, but Cool Runnings has a tender rendition, rubbed with allspice, thyme, paprika, pepper and garlic.
Although the sandwiches are more popular with patrons, jambalaya is definitely the house specialty, recommended by the servers and chef. Chunks of boneless chicken and smoky andouille sausage are mixed with a huge scoop of fluffy rice 'dirtied' with cayenne, garlic, tomato paste, white pepper, cloves and scallion. It's served with hot, homemade cornbread and, if you like, crawfish tails.
No matter what you order, it will be better with beer Ñ Red Stripe or Mad River Jamaica Red, specifically Ñ and a side of raucous hot sauce, made in-house weekly from mangos, habaneros, ginger and garlic. The reggae music, which plays almost constantly, may put you in a kind enough mood to forgive some of the menu's shortcomings.