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Venue Review: Spice Island Grill

Island Paradise
By "Kate Jonusak"
The Gazette

Since its opening in August, Spice Island Grill has made Colorado Springs a little bit sunnier. It’s a brightness that can be seen in everything they do, from the smiles of the staff and the new paint to the fantastic spice combinations and the fresh lime and orange juice in the homemade rum punch.

While true to the relaxed and fun vibe many people associate with the country, Spice Island Grill is more than Jamaican image alone. It’s instead built on solid culinary skill and delicious food, both backed up by a family of owners who are passionately invested in the restaurant’s success.

Starter highlights
The fact that they call their starters “Jammin-tisers” may be a little cheesy, but the actual offerings are all stellar and nicely priced. The Fried Codfish Balls ($6.99) are a masterpiece. The kitchen magician combines salted cod flakes, spices, batter and a deep fryer to transform seafood into a fluffy, savory donut.
As with most appetizers and jerk entrees, they’re served with a side of the specialty jerk sauce, a blend of spices and pickled scotch bonnet peppers — which I’ll admit the server caught me licking off my fingers. Sriracha, Frank’s RedHot, you name it: This jerk stands with the best hot sauces on the market.
If seafood balls are too adventurous for you, try the Jamaican Patties ($3), homemade dough filled with spiced beef or chicken, or the plantains ($4). The latter is a firmer, less sweet member of the banana family, served pan fried and spiced with cinnamon.
The spacious bar, which has a patio, is a great place for drinks, and their daily happy hour (5-7 p.m.) offers discounts rum punch and/or their bottled beers. Sadly, there’s nothing on tap.

Entree highlights
The world is full of different jerks, but I have never tasted better. By definition, jerk is spicy, but Spice Island gets it right: The heat rises up from underneath the spices, never overwhelming the flavors of allspice, pepper and the other ingredients of their house blend Jamaican marinade.
All of the jerk incarnations were stunning, especially the Jerk Pork ($12.99 dinner, $8.99 lunch). The pork shoulder is slowly grilled to juicy perfection, the slow speed avoiding the mouth-drying, hard crust of some grilled jerk. More delicate tilapia ($14.99) stood up equally well to the jerk seasoning, though its heat was kicked up a notch in comparison (unrequested.) The empty plate had no complaints.
I’ve never grabbed one by the tail, so the traditional Beef Oxtail Stew ($14.99 dinner, $9.99 lunch) showed me cows have thicker, meatier tails than I’d imagined — once cut into sections, they’re similar to spare ribs. Slowly simmering this tougher cut of meat has rich rewards, both in the intensification of beefy flavor and fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Whatever your main, choose the sautéed veggie mix for the side, which contains bell peppers and red and green cabbage, and acts as an ideal counterpoint to Spice Island’s robust Jamaican flavors. The mashed potatoes, served steaming hot in a ceramic ramekin, are also a good bet.
Overall, the portions are generous — especially the lunch servings, which, for the amount of care and prep put into the food, cannot be rivaled for the price.

Drawbacks
I honestly can’t label anything at Spice Island Grill a huge drawback, but though they lacked any outright failures, there were a few mehs on the menu. That includes the mac-n-cheese and the rice and peas (a Jamaican dish with red beans, not green peas), both of which seemed like grocery-deli-counter quality.
Preparing meats is one of Spice Island’s talents, but they make a point to include several enticing vegetarian dishes like jerk or BBQ tofu or tofu made into “fries.” However, the mild Tofu and Chick Pea Curry ($8.50) left my socks firmly on, and the tofu was slightly overcooked and chewy. Tofu newbies would likely not have been converted.
While it’s not a drawback per se, this should probably be a caveat, especially for first dates: Spice Island can be messy. In our oft boneless-skinless world, some diners don’t enjoy meat on the bone — which can include some gristle, though hopefully not too much -- or shrimp in the shell. Be aware, it’s impossible to peel the spicy jerk shrimp ($6.50 appetizer) like a perfect lady/gentleman, but hopefully you’re too relaxed to mind.

Service
Every time I dined, the general manager visited my table and all the servers were ready with explanations and recommendations. I got a high five for ordering my server’s favorite on one visit, and I don’t think the fun he was having doing his job was at all feigned.
The dinner service was perfectly timed and gave diners plenty of space; at lunch, when time is more pressed, however, the servers should probably speed things along more.

Ambience
I did see some fruit flies. I was enjoying myself so much that I tried to close my eyes and unsee them, but I have no such Jedi abilities. On another visit, the air was clear, and management says the problem has been addressed.
That tiny annoyance aside, the former El Tosoro has been brightened up with Caribbean blue, yellow and green paint. I always enjoyed the design elements of El Tosoro more than the food, and the arches, stucco benches and wood floors frame and tame the loud colors for a fun but classy result.
Probably by oversight, a “Best of 2007” sticker from the restaurant’s previous incarnation was left in one window. Go ahead and take it down, guys. If the public votes with their palates the way I would, you’ll have an award or two to put in its place soon enough.

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10/28/11 - The Gazette - Kate Jonusak

Since its opening in August, Spice Island Grill has made Colorado Springs a little bit sunnier. It’s a brightness that can be seen in everything they do, from the smiles of the staff and the new paint to the fantastic spice combinations and the fresh lime and orange juice in the homemade rum punch.

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