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Too Hot, Mon

Jamaican take-out on a summer day

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With temperatures soaring, standing in front of a backyard gas grill, or even inside in air conditioning, is just not appealing. I opted instead to bring the flavors of the tropics into my home courtesy of Austin's Caribbean Cuisine, a take-out only place.

Austin's, which owners and cooks Austin and Yvonne Martin opened in 1996, is located in a small strip shopping center across from Midtown Mall near downtown. Their open space is devoted to a large kitchen with only a small portion in front as the counter. No worries, though. From here you can smell the patties in the oven.

The Martins grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, moved to New York, and finally settled in Charlotte. Old family recipes are the basis for the dishes, most of which are made in-house with the exception of some of the desserts and the Jamaican patty appetizers, which are brought in frozen and then baked on-site.

Jamaican and perhaps Cuban cuisines are the most popular of all those found in the Caribbean islands. Each cuisine varies according to the county's history. Jamaican culture and food is a blend of New World, European, African, and Asian emigres. Barbecue is from the indigenous Arawak people; the Spanish contributed livestock; ackee, the Jamaican national fruit, was introduced by Africans; the British brought meat and vegetable patties, while Chinese and Indian emigrants added stir fries and curries respectively. Jamaican cuisine is known for its marinated, slow-cooked dishes and stews.

Austin's selections are rotated on a daily basis and Yvonne Martin recommends calling ahead if you want a specific dish. But with the choice of Jerks; curries; oxtail and beef stews; ackee and salt fish with plantains and dumplings, it would be hard not to find dishes that are bold and tantalizing. Coco bread, made from malanga, a root similar to taro, is often found only earlier in the day.

Goat and chicken pieces are rendered into bite-sized portions with a few powerful chops of a cleaver and are placed, bones and all, on top of a copious portion of rice and red beans (AKA peas). The Jerk Chicken, the Martin's most popular dish, is an amazing blend of heat, herbs, and spices that balance the tender sweetness of the meat. Mellower is the brown stew chicken enhanced with its balanced rich gravy. Turning up the heat a bit is the almost unbearable, wickedly spicy curried goat full of the bravado one expects.

Each meal is served with a choice of two sides: Johnny cake, a moist cornbread with a sly hint of sweetness; a sweet and sour "Tropical salad" cole slaw with cabbage, carrots, and bell pepper; a zestily crusted, densely flavored macaroni and cheese; steamed cabbage; lustrously light white rice; greens; yams; and corn on the cob. The sides at Austin's are also made on a rotation basis.

Yvonne Martin makes plantain tarts when she "gets the chance," sweet potato pudding, and a popular I-tal (vegetarian prepared by Rastafarian code) stew as well. She used to make all the desserts in house, but now has the carrot, strawberry, banana and lemon cakes made to her specifications. On holidays, Martin bakes special dishes. At Easter she makes Jamaican Spice Buns, noting, "We must have bun and cheese at Easter." Through their catering arm, the Martins often create dishes specifically for an event.

Nothing matches Jerk Chicken better than Red Stripe beer. However, Austin's doesn't sell beer, but the available cold drinks are worthy of a go. The Brow banana soda tastes surprising like a sparkling banana, while the sorrel is spicy sweet. Also offered is Irish Moss, the Jamaican Viagra, as well as fruit drinks, carrot juice, lemonade, and bottled Jamaican sodas.

If you think the quickest passage to Jamaica with its relaxing sun-drenched white sand beaches is through the air, a meal from Austin's may prompt your taste buds to disagree.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@ creativeloafing.com

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