What makes Jamaicans so happy and affable all the time, I asked, after being treated to the gracious, smiling, genuinely nice service at Rono's Family Dining. "Sunshine?" suggested my companion.
Whatever the secret, even after 30 years in cloudy, sullen Detroit, Arilda Lewison (Miss Rono) and her relatives radiate the warmth of Jamaica. It's not that service-sector welcome you get in some establishments, where it seems that the facial expressions and tones of voice were all learned at the same school. At Rono's, you could settle on smiling as a way of life.
After almost 21 years of operating a popular carryout at Six Mile and Evergreen, at the beginning of this year the Lewison family opened a dine-in place three miles east, with white cloths and flashy artificial red-white-and-pink flower arrangements on each table. Reggae videos play at one side of the one big room.
But it seems the neighborhood has decided that Jamaican food is to be eaten from Styrofoam: Customers are coming to the carry-out window at the new place, rather than sitting down. We were the only diners when we visited.
Either way, customers find tasty Jamaican staples not widely available in the area. I love the rich, fatty oxtail, in which the meat's former life as a tail is so clear (look out for the bones). It's cooked with white limas that add to the richness.
Slightly drier is curry goat, a dish originally brought by indentured laborers from India. This is not terribly spicy, and in fact even Miss Rono's jerks made with the Scotch Bonnet pepper, reputed to be the hottest in the world are not as fiery as that sounds (though they are hot). To "jerk" chicken or pork, she marinates it in a mixture that also includes scallions, onions and habaneros, and then grills it.
One of our favorite dishes was tilapia, which looks as if too much was done to it, smothered in a stew of onions and red pepper. But the very fresh taste of the tilapia shines through.
Other seafood possibilities are red snapper, kingfish and, if you're lucky, the traditional ackee and codfish. (Jamaica's national fruit, the red ackee, is expensive and hard to get right now because of crop damage by hurricanes.) Tripe and cow feet are offered for home folks who really want to wax nostalgic.
The meals are served with a skippable tossed salad (dressings in squeeze bottles), red beans and rice, and a good, sweet-and-mellow cabbage-carrot stir-fry invented for the new restaurant.
Among Miss Rono's most intriguing offerings are her drinks. She imports sorrel, which in Jamaica grows in the fields and sports a beautiful red flower. Dried and mixed with ginger, boiled and steeped, it results in a cloudy brown drink, served in a big bottle, plenty to take home. It looks like a dark homemade apple cider, but its taste is fiery ginger.
She also home-brews Irish Moss, a Caribbean seaweed. The weed is completely dissolved through hours of boiling, and then the good stuff is added: milk plus peanuts, banana or vanilla. My creamy, sweet foamy concoction tasted simply of peanuts and was divine.
Other Jamaican drinks are Malta India, which is made from molasses and tastes it, and D&G brand cream soda, which is more carbonated than the usual. Also on the menu are ginger beer, pineapple soda, fresh carrot juice and Cola Champagne (also a cream soda).
The typical Jamaican street food, the beef patty, was unfortunately unavailable when I visited. A spiced-up descendant of the British pasty, this is Jamaica's version of the empanada. The warm vegetable version with cabbage and carrots is a reasonable substitute, however.
For dessert, the best bet is plantains six generous pieces for $1.50, sweet, crisp and caramelized on the outside. These are also served with the main dishes. We tried a rectangular block of sweet potato pudding that was certainly sweet and mildly sweet potato-ish.
Rono's Family Dining is open every day except Monday from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30p.m. The carryout at 20211 W. McNichols is open 12:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].