WHAT: Boswell's Jamaican Grill
WHERE: 3521 Tulane Ave., 482-6600
WHEN: Lunch and early dinner Mon.-Sat.
HOW: Credit cards
Reservations: Not accepted
Before Hurricane Katrina, weekend lunch at Boswell's on South Broad Street was always a treat, for both the jerk chicken and a chance to watch what appeared to be much of the city's Jamaican expat community breezing in and out, calling to proprietor Boswell Atkinson behind the grill in island accents and picking up enough food for a family picnic. This traffic, and the density of flyers stacked up around the place advertising island-themed events and other Jamaican-owned businesses, made it clear Boswell's was a hub for Caribbean culture in a city without many outlets.
The levee failure washed Boswell's out of its original location, but over the summer, Atkinson reopened his restaurant at a new address a dozen blocks away on Tulane Avenue. It's set back from the street in a plain metal building that formerly housed an auto-paint supply shop, and it can be tough to spot from a passing car. During any weekday lunch, however, it's clear many from the city's island community have found it again. They drop by throughout the afternoon for meat-stuffed patties to go, a pass through the excellent chicken and rice buffet or to settle in at the bar for a plate of oxtails and a bottle of Dragon Stout, the stronger, darker cousin of Red Stripe beer.
The dining room is brighter and roomier than at the previous location, but the food is very much the same and, as always, jerk chicken remains the set piece of Atkinson's kitchen. Chicken breasts are pounded tender, while the outer surfaces pulse with the nose-gripping flavors of cinnamon, ginger, allspice and clove. Jerk pork gets the same rub, though it usually comes out drier than the chicken. In either case, the brown, chunky, herbaceous hot sauce Atkinson portions out on the side electrofies the aromatic and earthy jerk preparation.
Curries are another strong suit. These West Indian-style gravies are similar to the central Asian curries from which they evolved, and at Boswell's, the green curry is buttery and mild in a way that comes off as creamy and sweet.
Another close connection with Indian cooking shows up with the roti, a soft flatbread stuffed with any of the curries. The bread is about as thick as a tortilla, and when filled, it looks like an extra-fat burrito, but don't think about picking it up to eat out of hand. Rather, cut into it like a loaf and watch out for large and small bits of bone scattered throughout the saucy, chunky curry. The goat curry is especially difficult to negotiate but rewardingly delicious as all those bones and chewy bits of flesh lend their essence to the richly flavored base.
Plates are served barbecue-joint style, with a choice of two sides. The indispensable items are the callaloo, a leafy green cooked down with plenty of garlic, and the rice and peas in which the "peas" are red beans.
The shrimp dishes are pretty ordinary, with the exception of the shrimp curry, which is just as hearty and full-flavored as the chicken or goat versions. The seafood dish to order is the escovitch, usually made with a whole red snapper. This is the Jamaican take on Spanish escabeche, with the fish marinated in vinegar, pan-fried and covered with onions, carrots and bell peppers for an assertive, tart and memorable dish.
Escovitch is available every day on the à la carte menu and frequently appears on the daily lunch buffet on Fridays. This buffet is a new addition to Boswell's, and for a fast, inexpensive meal, it is highly recommended. Atkinson and his staff do a good job of turning around orders quickly during the lunch rush, but with the buffet, one can simply load up a plate with jerk chicken thighs, wings and drumsticks, rice and peas and salad, and get to work. Besides the jerk, here are usually two other types of chicken at the buffet, like curried chicken, stewed chicken or chicken and potato soup, and all lend themselves particularly well to the large-batch service style. At $8.50, it is a serious bargain.
For a quick snack or to start off a big meal, ask for one of the patties, or savory Jamaican pastries, waiting in the glass warming case behind the bar. Patties are a lot like Louisiana meat pies, though at Boswell's, the beef variety has a milder seasoning and the chicken version is a curry encased in flaky dough.
Service is informal but friendly. It's often easier to simply get up and pay at the register than wait for the bill, but the place is so laid-back it hardly seems to matter. A plywood bar inlaid with Jamaican currency makes a good perch for a solo diner, and even if you don't want to down a Dragon or Red Stripe, the nonalcoholic beverages feature Caribbean brands as well. Green bottles of the grapefruit soda Ting are singularly refreshing, but enough of the spicy ginger beer may indeed put hair on your chest, especially if coupled with the jerk.