If you’re reading this, you’re probably not in the Caribbean right now, and wish that you were. (If you actually are in the Caribbean, don’t be an idiot. Turn off the computer and go outside and thank your personal higher power you aren’t in Boston during the winter.) Back to those of you marooned in New England: you can get a taste of the Caribbean, if not an actual tan, at Flames. Flames II brings the hearty and highly flavored food of Jamaica from its original Mattapan location to the hospital district. A working-class crowd might sit and chow down here at breakfast or lunch, but on my two night and weekend visits, the place sold mostly take-out and most conversation was with the staff. I think that’s a shame, as this is actually a very decent little room, bright yellow and well-lit with about 14 tables and booths, and the staff have lots to say about how they make the food. If a diner mentions a visit to Jamaica, there will be a discussion of just where, and how far that would be from the staff member’s hometown, and how beautiful it is around there.
My first impression of the food is that there is quite a bit of it. Appetizers stick to one’s ribs and main dishes run small/medium/large ($5/$7.50/$9). We worked mostly with medium dinners; they started with a choice of rice, and about four times as much of it as I usually eat. Then on would come some stew or broiled meat, and a solid helping of vegetables, and somehow a plastic lid would be forced down onto a plastic clamshell so you could take the dish to your table, cafeteria-style, or home. The most obvious advantage of eating these kinds of platters in the restaurant is that when you can’t stuff in another bite, your leftovers are already packed and ready to go.
You can actually eat heartily at Flames II on steak tips, beef stew, or herbal broiled chicken, dishes that are just good food and not especially Jamaican or ethnic at all. One thing that is very Caribbean is that not all of the menu is available on a given day. What you do is belly up to the steam table and ask about what’s actually in stock — about three or four of the nine listed appetizers, three kinds of rice, and six to 10 of perhaps 24 entrées.
There are probably always beef patties ($1.50), and they are good. The pastry is a squared-off turnover in that alarming chrome yellow, and the filling is sneaky-spicy without being specifically “curry.” Fish cakes ($5) are salt-cod fritters, but ours had been out of the fryer too long and were hard and starchy, though with an after-burn.
Moving on to the dinners, my favorite rice was peas-and-rice, a brown pilaf of cowpeas like hoppin’ John but with a hint of cinnamon. The white rice was somewhat oily and aromatic, like Puerto Rican or Cuban rice. Then there was yellow rice, oily and rich, but with a dry finish from the turmeric. Sometimes a few diced vegetables and green peas in the yellow rice, sometimes not.
Now, to put on that rice, the Jamaican side of the ledger begins with curried goat, here in a really sharp, almost mentholated curry sauce with lots of ground coriander. I’ve eaten curried goat enough times to appreciate that this particular stew would not be as good with lamb.
But if you would rather have a more familiar flavor, the oxtail is a truly flavorful beef stew, with plenty of gravy, and no spice to it. The only hang-up anyone might have concerns the bones. The “barbecued chicken” baked in a tangy sauce like Boston barbecue is likewise irresistible, and chicken bones are more familiar. There’s a grilled herbal chicken for the no-spice contingent.
No bones? Okay, there’s chicken with an herbal vegetable stuffing inside a breast and a tomato sauce with some sneaky spice. There are steak and beef stews, essentially the same thing, but in the stew the steak is cut into smaller pieces and includes more vegetables, mostly onions and bell peppers, making these almost like Chinese dishes.
Vegetables are also a question of what you see. My favorite was “cabbage salad,” a shredded mixture of sautéed cabbage and onions. I also like the mixed vegetables with lots of limas, as opposed to the mixed vegetables with lots of peas and carrots, or even the mixed vegetables with lots of cauliflower and broccoli.
To wash it down, Flames II offers sodas, but also homemade Jamaican “juices.” The one I had was ginger ($3), as biting as Jamaican ginger beer, but without carbonation, and sweeter.