New Orleans, La. –
Every winter, as the banana trees in our backyards turn the color of grocery bags and as we start seeing our own breath in our oh-so-well-ventilated shotgun homes, it's easy to doubt that old saw about New Orleans being the northernmost port of the Caribbean. But that was then, and this is summer.
The bananas and palms have unfurled their new rigging, any memory of light frost has vanished in steam and even the busiest, hardest-charging people seem to grow at least a little more languid, or perhaps just drowsy. The question of where to eat to fully embrace our cross-Caribbean connections, however, can prove vexing. We have a handful of Cuban restaurants, and the coastal cooking of Central American has more local exposure now thanks to the growing number of Latino restaurants. Though when I think of casual Caribbean food, I think of Jamaican jerk, and I think how hard it is to find it here.
But from a tiny storefront along a brick-paved stretch of Bayou Road, at the restaurant Coco Hut, a cook who calls herself Mother Nature is providing one answer when the jerk jones strikes.
Mother Nature is originally from Colombia and learned her current bag of kitchen tricks while living in Jamaica with her husband, a native of Kingston. In New Orleans, she started out cooking and selling jerk chicken on the sidewalk outside a Caribbean-style music club on Bayou Road, a place in that tangle of intersections where the streets lose their grid structure. Later, the operation has moved inside and became Coco Hut, but now, as then, the chicken is cooked outdoors on a simple backyard grill.
There is a printed menu here, but it should be regarded more as an advisory of what is possible than what is necessarily available. For that, look to the casually scrawled specials board or simply holler over the low wall partially separating the kitchen from the tiny dining room to ask Mother Nature herself what she's cooking that day.
Jerk is always available, and the choice between hot or mild should not be approached lightly. The hot chicken is consistently one of the spiciest meals I've eaten in New Orleans, but it's more than just spicy hot. The brown coating of barbecued seasoning is thick with herbs, and it reveals sweet, tropical flavors from tiny bits of pineapple, papaya and mango. The heat is powerful and lingers on the lips for quite some time. It sticks to the tongue and the whole mouth. It talks to your nose and makes you sweat. It's heat that makes you afraid to rub your eyes, or anything else, until you've had a chance to wash up.
There are few creature comforts at Coco Hut. Most people get take-out, and everything is served in foam containers. Eating here is nearly as casual as a family dinner that you have to pay for, but you can also expect familial warmth if you show any appreciation for the cooking. And, like the spicy heat of a good jerk dish, that's the kind of warmth I'll seek out no matter how hot it gets.
2515 Bayou Rd., New Orleans, 504-945-8788