The Tropic of Red Stripe

Shaggy's & Josie Couldn't Be More Different

1600 S. Congress, 447-5375

Cafe Josie
1200-B W. Sixth, 322-9226

photograph by John Anderson

With Bob Marley on the sound system and a Myer's rum and ginger beer in your hand, Shaggy's Caribbean Grill on South Congress feels like a Jamaican beach bar. The first time I went there, a girl with blue hair and a guy in black clothes were sitting at the next table eating French fries and drinking beer. I wondered why they were making a meal of French fries in a Jamaican restaurant -- I soon found out. The jerk pork and Jamaican rice and peas at Shaggy's are a joke. Jerk is the Jamaican style of barbecue, a process requiring meat to be marinated in jerk seasonings and smoked over a slow wood fire. What Shaggy's calls jerk pork is a skinny little pork chop doused with vinegary herb sauce. Rice and peas, known as "Jamaican Coat of Arms" because of its universal popularity in Jamaica, is something like Louisiana's red beans and rice; rice and gunga peas are cooked together into a thick and satisfying stew. When I ordered rice and peas at Shaggy's, I got a plate of rice with exactly 21 kidney beans tossed in.

Once you realize that Shaggy's isn't really a Caribbean restaurant, you can kick back and enjoy yourself. The chicken taquitos and the black bean nachos are good, and the hamburgers look great. The basket of French fries is $1.95 and although there's an annoying amount of cinnamon in the seasoning mix that's sprinkled on them, the basket is so enormous that two people really can make a meal of them. The vegan Ital Run-down, a stew of nicely cooked vegetables in a well-seasoned coconut milk sauce is authentically Caribbean, and so are the flaky Jamaican-style meat patties. And pints are only $2 at happy hour, so what else could you want in a Jamaican beach bar?

I had this bright idea of reviewing Shaggy's together with another restaurant, Cafe Josie. They are both fairly new, and I was under the impression that they are both Caribbean restaurants. This was a mistake, and I apologize for their odd juxtaposition here. Though both of these places use Jamaican and jerk on their menus a lot and both serve Red Stripe beer, there aren't a lot of other similarities.

Shaggy's is a funky South Austin joint with a Caribbean theme and 22 beers on tap where musicians in baseball caps and women with blue hair eat French fries and drink beer. Cafe Josie, "a tropic-inspired fresh seafood grill," is a toney little perch tucked behind the boutiques of West Sixth where people with sunglasses on top of their heads do lunch. The night that I ate at Cafe Josie, there was one woman with blue hair, but it was the other kind.

Most of the entrées at Cafe Josie are excellent. Pepita crusted redfish with habañero butter ($16.95) was moist and tender inside, crunchy outside. Jamaican grilled shrimp with ginger tamarind sauce and tropical fruit salsa ($14.95) were absolutely succulent. The jerk pork tenderloin ($15.95) wasn't really jerk either, but it tasted a lot better than the pork chop at Shaggy's (at three times the price, of course).

Cafe Josie
photograph byJohn Anderson

Why does Cafe Josie call itself a "tropic-inspired fresh seafood grill?" I guess it's because it mixes Jamaican, Asian, and other hot weather cooking styles together and serves mostly fish. Actually, there are 12 entrées on the menu, of which six are seafood, four are meat, and two are vegetarian -- but who's counting? The patio and sunny dining room do have a tropical sort of mood, the presentations feature a lot of mangoes and passion fruit, and the menu includes quite a few exotic seafood appetizers. The Cajun-spiced calamari and the homemade shrimp potstickers are particularly good.

But it's odd that while your seafood comes all decked out in tropical trappings at Cafe Josie, the vegetables appear stark naked. The vegetarian Jamaican stir-fry ($8.95) is a plate of stir-fried vegetables on a bed of rice. It comes with three sauces to liven it up: wasabi, passion fruit, and jerk. This is not a very good way to season things. There you are with a plate of flavorless vegetables on a bed of rice and three little dishes of disparate sauces. Now what are you supposed to do? Mix the Japanese horseradish, tropical fruit puree, and thyme-laden jerk sauce together on your plate? Pretend the vegetables are crudités and pick them up and dip them?

The side dishes have the same problem; the black beans are bland, the saffron rice is bland, and so are the "fresh veggies." I tried slathering the steamed zucchini and carrots with habañero butter -- they were still dull. This kind of vegetable cookery doesn't work for me, but those of you who like sauce on the side and nude veggie-weggies will be in heaven.

I suspect that I am not really in Cafe Josie's intended audience anyway. The cooking seems to be geared toward affluent West Austin diners who are trying to get in a good meal while sticking to their diets, and in that regard Cafe Josie is doing an excellent job. A first-rate piece of fish with a good salsa or tropical fruit sauce and some low-fat sides is a painless way to eat healthy. (There's a grilled rib eye with peppercorn butter on the menu for your unrestrained dining companion.)

If your bathing suit is tight but your budget isn't, you could hardly do better than Cafe Josie's. On the other hand, if you're looking for a $6 dinner for two, you can't beat a basket of French fries and a couple of pints at Shaggy's. If you're dying for Caribbean food, call a travel agent.

Robb Walsh is the co-author of Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork & Spoon; A Righteous Guide to Jamaican Cookery.

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