Munch goes to Rasta House

Saying a place has the best oxtail stew in the Central North Side is a lot like saying a place has the best chicken adobo in Tarentum -- which is to say, it's not so much high comparative praise as it is a rarefied neighborhood offering, even in these burgeoning ethnic dining times. But I'm gonna go ahead and say it anyway: Rasta House has the best oxtail stew in the Central North Side.

Wait, Rasta House -- sounds familiar, does it not? That's the Anglicanized version of "Casa Rasta," the Mexican-Caribbean place in Beechview. Similar names, similar themes, different city neighborhoods.

The owner of the North Side version, Kelly Morrissey, was set to partner with the Beechview restaurant group and open a second Casa Rasta location on Federal Street last year. But you know how fragile restaurant partnerships are -- here today, incinerated by an "accidental" grease fire tomorrow -- and Casa Rasta on Federal instead became Rasta House, recognizable from its red, green and yellow storefront and the reggae music yelping from the sound system.

This installation leans more toward Caribbean than Mexican -- in fact, it's exclusively Caribbean. Not a taco or burrito to be witnessed.

Instead we have a streamlined menu with chicken, goat, shrimp, fish, pork and the aforementioned bone-in oxtail options; preparations include jerk, stew and curry dishes.

Yes, curry -- when we think curry, we still primarily think of the Asian subcontinent. But when Indians settled in places such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Antigua (the owner, Mr.Morrissey, was born in Antigua), they brought their spice jars with them.

And they brought their goats (also native to Europe and southwest Asia). Goat, you may have read, is trendy in Pittsburgh now, to the delight of epicures -- and, it must be supposed, to the chagrin of goats.

You'll find it in stew, raviolis, soups, burgers, ribs, and then some: "A lean meat, it's naturally high in protein and iron. It's also cited for its sweetness from its diet of primarily grass," explains PG food critic Melissa McCart. "The U.S. is awakening to the many reasons goat is the most widely eaten protein in the world."

At Rasta House, the goat curry was a mild one, in keeping with the Caribbean sensibilities, but do not confuse mild with boring: it's still an intoxicating mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric plus the sweeter Caribbean spices like allspice, cloves and ginger. Served with roti flat bread (made with chick-pea flour) and a side of cooked cabbage, even the small platter ($8.50) is a substantial meal.

The oxtail stew (onions, garlic, and aromatic thyme browned in a gravy, $8.50) matched well with stewed collared greens and a gooey, crusty loaf of macaroni and cheese. Missing from this platter were the fried plantains (they'd run out on this particular visit), but I'll grab them, along with the jerk chicken, next time I visit, which I expect will be soon.

Now that the thermometer is regularly hitting 70 degrees, entering the Rasta House isn't terribly far apart from walking off an airplane that has landed in Jamaica, while still wearing your winter sweater -- a blast of heat, followed by a sudden burst of appreciation for indoor air conditioning. The place has a frenetic energy common to many takeout places crammed into narrow, low-rent storefronts: clerks shouting orders, cooks shouting back, unnerving culinary pandemonium.

Pittsburgh can't seem to sustain more than a few Caribbean storefronts at a time (Kaya being excluded from that mix). Royal Caribbean in East Liberty thrived for a time. But after Calypso Caribbean Grille opened in West Mifflin, Royal Caribbean closed. When Calypso closed, Kahila's Taste in Oakland opened -- and then promptly closed (but it still does catering, the owner says).

Into the void comes Rasta House, Fireside Caribbean in Wilkinsburg, and Island Spice in Mount Oliver. Surely there's an appetite for food from the Caribbean archipelago in Pittsburgh.

I mean, we all spent the winter wishing we could visit someplace tropical, right? Eating there might be the next best thing.

Rasta House, 1204 Federal St., Central North Side; 412-321-2055; Closed Sunday.



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