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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Belly Full

Unsurprising Extinction Dept.: A Jamaican restaurant in a shopping-mall food court? Too good to be true? It was. Albany is frightened of this kind of thing. But here’s what I wrote about it during its brief existence in 2009.


IT HAS THE COLOR AND TEXTURE of scrambled egg, but cooked ackee fruit takes you in a completely different flavor direction. It’s sweeter, I think, but it’s difficult to isolate that flavor when it’s paired with salt cod, which, true to its name, spreads a salty penumbra over the palate.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the combination teases the salt into a milder realm, so this pairing became popular enough in Jamaica to win the title of national dish. It’s an acquired taste. I have food-adventurous friends unwilling to commit to it just yet, but my own experience suggests that it grows on you quickly.

And it’s now offered in the least likely place to find it: Crossgates Mall, at one of the food court stalls. Amidst the familiar fast-food brands, past the gauntlet of free-sample barkers is Full-Mi-Belly, a colorful, bargain-priced eatery that offers a handful of Jamaican specialties.

It’s an outgrowth of Jamaican Spice, a Beacon restaurant opened in 2005 by Jamaican native and Poughkeepsie resident Larkland Campbell. Pleased by the quick popularity of the place, he created a model that could be franchised into places like malls.

Full-Mi-Belly has the look and feel of a national chain, which is comforting for the culinarily nervous, but a dramatically different menu from the rest. Which is both a relief and a blessing.

Because, let’s face it, mall shopping is a soul-draining experience. The sensory assault is relentless, from the involuntary torment of unwanted music to the eye-grabbing culture of buy buy buy. The walkways have a prison cellblock feel and the blank-eyed stare of fellow shoppers is a reminder that Jack Finney’s Bodysnatchers are among us still.

Even the food court is depressing. The lines snaking back from McDonald’s in effect are grabbing you by the shirt and snarling, “I’m still the boss.” Plastic tables with attached chairs oppose comfort, and the only natural light comes from a window overlooking the crowded parking lot.

How nice, then, to bring a plastic forkful of jerk chicken to you lips and escape. The allspice-rich seasoning, moist and pungent and with a reasonable bite, reminds you that the vibrancy of life is the vibrancy of food, and what you take in transforms you. A jerk dish can be spicy, sure, but that’s only one of many surprising flavor characteristics. It’s sweet. It dances. It changes as it explores your tongue. It’s addictive. The jerk pork is also terrific, taking you in yet another flavor direction.

“Do you want sauce on your rice?” you’ll be asked. The answer is yes. Rice is so harmonious a jerk companion as to be inevitable. You have the choice of white rice or the more island-y peas and rice combo; I’ve opted only for the latter, which is a satisfying preparation of a characteristic dish for which there’s no single recipe.

Clarendon stew chicken is a conventional though aromatic braised dish, paying tribute to a southern Jamaican parish; stew beef also is available. Curry chicken or goat sport the effects of a different array of aromatics, while oxtail is a stew using meat that more usually comes from the conclusion of a beef cow. And, of course, there’s ackee and saltfish, which I’m sure you’re sample once you get to know this place.

Meals at Full-Mi-Belly work as follows. Pick one of the above meats, choose your rice, and add a vegetable side dish, selecting from vegetable stew, cabbage, ackee or callaloo. The last-named is made from a spinach-like leaf combined with okra.

The small-sized meal ($6) offers a reasonable portion of each; for another $2 you can up the size to an extremely filling array. I haven’t tried the $10 size, but I trust that it will feed two and thus offers the best deal of all. For the same prices, you can opt for three vegetable selections.

You’ll spot a display of meat patties ($2.50 each), which taste as good as they look, with flaky crusts and a generous filling made from beef (with or without cheese), jerk or curry chicken, shrimp, callaloo, veggies or soy. Mini versions are $1. Make a meal of two patties with a soda for $6.

Chicken or vegetable soup is $3, and you can sample the best thing to happen to chicken wings with Full-Mi-Belly’s jerk variety (six for $4, a dozen for $7). A variety of soda and iced tea, including Jamaican Ting, is also available.

It’s easy to fill up with this food, but if you’re left longing for a sweet finish, rum cake and carrot cake is available for $3 a slice.

Sad to say, I’ve yet to see a line in front of Full-Mi-Belly that’s anything like the neighboring lines, but that leaves us a clubhouse feeling about patronizing the place. On the face of it, classifying this as the best food in the mall is a designation moderated by the low threshold of the other offerings; it’s better than that. Nevertheless, that’s the compliment I paid the cashier as I paid for my recent meal, and she smiled and murmured, “That’s what everybody tells me.”

Full-Mi-Belly, Crossgates Mall Food Court, 1 Crossgates Mall Rd., Albany. Serving Mon-Sat 10-9:30, Sun 11-6. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 22 January 2009

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