Keeping some semblance of cool as our summer heat rages on can take some strategy. We park the car under oak limbs and walk on the shady side of the street. We keep ice water handy and, when it's time to eat, something cool and light sounds like just the thing.
But across the spectrum, there is another way, and it’s to embrace the heat, to own it. Revel in fiery foods and you may just beat the heat at its own game.
Dig into spicy food and, yes, your face may flush. You might start sweating. But then, the heat draws back in a long finish that feels cooling as your body adjusts. The taste experience can be exhilarating, and after the initial onslaught, it can even feel refreshing and reviving.
That’s part of the appeal of spicy cuisines all across the world, including the version emanating from our neighbors just across the Gulf in the Caribbean.
Hot peppery spice is more than a traditional element of Caribbean cooking. It’s also a point of pride in many Caribbean kitchens, and around New Orleans that finds different expressions at some very different restaurants sharing island influences.
In Mid-City, there’s Boswell’s Jamaican Grill, which functions like a clubhouse for the local Caribbean community with event flyers on the bar and a roll call of island accents as regulars walk through the door from Tulane Avenue. Boswell’s jerk chicken is the star attraction, with a spice level that’s not mind-bending but still captures your attention, building both in heat and in complexity as you go.
Not far from Boswell’s, along Bayou Road, there’s another outpost for jerk — a tiny hole-in-the-wall called Coco Hut. Ask for your meal spicy here and you may be tempting fate as the kitchen works up a multi-chorus burn so hot it’s a wonder it doesn’t melt the foam containers in which it’s all served.
The Caribbean penchant for peppery spice also reaches up to higher-end dining at Compère Lapin. That’s the new Warehouse District restaurant from Nina Compton, of TV’s “Top Chef” fame, and it’s a high-aiming, modern restaurant with French and Italian overtones.
But Compton grew up on the island of St. Lucia, and she did not hesitate to bring the heat here, threading her elegant menu with a handful of boldly spicy dishes. Exhibit A is the lunch dish hot fire chicken. It’s thickly coated with a rusty-red, vividly spicy sauce. Bite in and flavorful juices burst through the craggily fried crust, painting your palate with hot, lingering spice.
Another angle on Caribbean heat sits quietly at the back of a Gretna strip, and it takes a little sleuthing out. The little café Taste of the Caribbean initially opened as a Haitian restaurant. Lately, this has gone over to more Central American fare, but an island backbeat remains. Just ask and out come the habaneros and Scotch bonnet peppers, turning an innocent slaw or an otherwise mellow plantain dish into a showcase of spice.
A thick mango drink can temporarily tame the edge, but really there’s nothing else to do but keep eating, wipe away the sweat and wait for the relief of equilibrium. It’s not for the timid, but it sure is more fun than just waiting for autumn.
Boswell’s Jamaican Grill
3521 Tulane Ave., New Orleans, 504-482-6600; www.boswelljamaicangrillonline.com
2515 Bayou Rd., New Orleans, 504-945-8788
535 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-599-2119; www.comperelapin.com
Taste of the Caribbean
505 Gretna Blvd., Gretna, 504-810-0276