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A few years back, I was on one of my lunchtime jaunts when I made my way up Broad Street in New London and came upon Island Touch Restaurant.
It didn't look like much: a small, cinderblock building painted white; the inside was as spacious as some walk-in closets. But the food was something to write home about: jerk chicken falling off the bone, heaping sides of cabbage, plantains and rice and beans, and veggie and beef patties piping hot out of the oven.
I asked around after to see if anyone else in The Day newsroom had ever heard of the place. It turned out some had, and the consensus was this: the place doesn't look like much, but, man, can the people there cook.
I ventured back last week for the full Island Touch experience, a chance to taste everything from jerk and curried meats to red snapper and refreshing Jamaican sodas.
There's a laid-back, some might say island feel that pervades Island Touch. On my most recent visit, a teenager sat on a stool that propped open the front door and greeted each patron coming in, Jamaican music played through a cell phone hooked up to a speaker system, a floor fan blew in cool air from outside, and the owner, Rohan Valentin, and another cook were busy in the back, prepping meat, pulling Jamaican patties from the oven and sizzling up red snapper.
The ambience is simple and authentic. The walls are painted yellow, green and white. There's a shelf above the stovetop packed with spices. Posters of Bob Marley, Martin Luther King Jr., Haile Selassie and some proverbs decorate the space.
Island Touch is primarily a take-out restaurant. There are a few seats, a counter top, napkins and some Jamaican hot pepper sauce at the entrance, but that's about it. If you want to eat in, you're best off going by on a lunch break alone or with a friend. Get take-out if there's a larger party.
The meat dishes are undoubtedly the most impressive offerings. They're slow cooked and, by the time they're ready, the meat is literally pulling away from the bone (it's quite tasty and a little less work to enjoy).
On my last visit, I snacked on a spicy ground beef patty ($2) while I waited for my curried goat ($7 for a small; $13 for a large), jerk chicken ($7 for a small; $11 for a large), and red snapper ($12). The doughy outside and moist filling of the beef patty was so satisfying I had a veggie one for dessert; it was a nice mix of carrots, corn, cabbage and spices more than fairly priced at $2.25.
(There's an advertised lunch special worth mentioning: between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., all chicken dishes are $5.50; jerk pork, oxtail and curry goat are $5.99.)
If you try one meal at Island Touch, make it the curried goat. The meat is slowly stewed and among the moistest I've ever had. The slightly spicy curry sauce has a way of seeping into the sides of cabbage and rice and beans. It adds flavor and unity to this gem of a dish. And the goat may even be better as leftovers the next day (I'm eating it for breakfast as I compose this review).
The jerk chicken is unparalleled and near-impossible to replicate - literally, I bought some coriander and allspice a few years back to try to make this rub but was sorely disappointed. There's a saltiness to the chicken that activates your taste buds in a way that keeps you eating even when you know the prudent thing would be to put away the takeout container and save the rest for dinner.
The red snapper comes prepared either mild or spicy. I went spicy. It's a whole snapper, so you have to pick around some little bones. It's worth it, though. The snapper is flaky, flavorful and comes with a kick. Like all the dishes here, it's aptly paired with the standard sides of cabbage and rice and beans.
One should make a point to wash down his or her meal with the Jamaican sodas available. My recommendations are Ting, a sweet and tarty grapefruit soda, or kola champagne, a hard to describe beverage that tastes something like birch beer, ginger beer, cream soda and bubble gum flavoring all in one bottle.
One thing you should know is that, while service is fast, part of the Island Touch experience seems to be the occasional unawareness of time and lack of punctuality. The restaurant advertises regular hours, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday, but I've gone by at scheduled times and seen the door closed. On my last visit, the owner told me things were a little behind that day and I should come back in an hour.
I find this sort of thing adds to the homespun character of Island Touch. Other regulars don't seem fazed either; it's like going to a New York deli where you know you'll be insulted. But if you've got a tight schedule or you're coming into New London specifically for Island Touch, you'd be wise to call ahead.
Island Touch opened in 2006, and, according to the owner, the mission has always been to offer fast and flavorful food at an affordable price. I'd say, so far, it's so good.
78 Broad St., New London
Price range: $2 to $13
Service: Energetic, quick and charming
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sundays
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Handicapped access: Entrance is small step up from sidewalk; ask for assistance