Every winter, as the banana trees turn the color of grocery bags and we start seeing our own breath in our well-ventilated shotguns, 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 people seem to grow more languid. The question of where to eat to fully embrace our cross-Caribbean connections, however, proves vexing. Cuban food is relatively abundant, and Central American coastal cooking has more local exposure than ever at the growing number of Latino restaurants. But when I think of casual Caribbean food, I think of Jamaican jerk, and I think how hard it is to find in the Big Easy.
Even the handful of local jerk specialists that were here before Katrina have been winnowed down by the disaster, namely Boswell's Jamaican Food Store and Grill, which remains shuttered on South Broad Street, and the more upscale Mango House (replaced by Iris) in the Riverbend. But from a tiny storefront along a brick-paved stretch of Bayou Road, a cook who calls herself Mother Nature is providing the 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 worked for many years at Lola's, the Spanish restaurant on Esplanade Avenue. Then she broke out on her own, which meant cooking and selling jerk chicken on the sidewalk outside a Caribbean-style music club then in business near Bayou Road and North Dorgenois Street in a tangle of intersections where the streets lose their grid structure.
The operation has moved inside, but now, as then, the chicken is stilled cooked al fresco on a simple backyard-style grill. Around Jazz Fest this year, Mother Nature made the enterprising move of bringing the grill from the yard behind her restaurant to the sidewalk before it, thus creating a uniquely effective marketing draw with the clouds of fragrant smoke wafting across Bayou Road.
There is a printed menu, 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 and mild should not be approached lightly. The hot chicken ended up being one of the spiciest meals I've eaten in New Orleans, but it was more than just spicy hot. The brown coating of barbecue seasoning is thick, almost woody with herbs, and 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.
The jerk also can go on any selection from the impressive array of fish usually listed on the specials board. It's common to find snapper, tuna, rainbow trout, tilapia, salmon and speckled trout all available at lunch or for early dinner, before the kitchen closes at 7 p.m.
An order of jerk tuna was perfectly cooked, left pink and nearly raw within, as ordered. Over it all was that hot jerk, which sticks to the tongue and the whole mouth, talks to your nose and causes you to sweat. It's heat that makes you afraid to rub your eyes or anything else until you've had a chance to wash up.
Mother Nature's cooking doesn't have to be spicy, but she always seems to use a healthy abundance of fresh vegetables " from a hash of salsa cruda atop a thick fillet of red snapper to a side dish of sautéed Brussels sprouts with grilled peppers and onions.
Order the tilapia and expect to receive a Styrofoam box with the fish's finished tail protruding from the edge. Open it and you confront the kisser of the whole fish, none of it disguised under any kind of batter or coating. Smoky, charred bits edge the skin, while the interior flesh is moist and steaming and breaks apart easily under the plastic fork. By the time you get to the pile of Spanish rice beneath, the yellow grains are soaked with citrus, oil, salty seasoning and stray bits of fish.
There is usually a soup available, like navy bean and carrot soup that is spicy with red pepper and thick and creamy from the stewed beans. Black bean soup had a thin broth and plenty of body from fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro. The seasonings conspire to slowly build up the heat level, so that by the end, what began as a mellow bowl morphed into something compellingly spicy and vividly fresh.
There are few creature comforts at Coco Hut. Most people get takeout. Eating here is nearly as casual as a family dinner (except you have to pay), but newcomers also can expect familial warmth if they show appreciation for the cooking.