Taste the tropics at Jolly Bob’s on Willy Street

Caryn Kindkeppel, Clarion staff

Upon entering Jolly Bob’s one is transported to the tropics at a long bar humming with activity and ripe bananas hanging overhead awaiting their fate: a fruity blended drink. A large fish tank filled with colorful tropical fish and bright photographs of people hanging out in the Caribbean complete the ambiance. The day’s cares begin to melt away.

Even the firmest resolve to avoid “drinking one’s calories” will soften when presented with the vast array of fruity tropical beverages on the drink menu. With the whirr of blenders in the background, it’s impossible to escape the desire for a blended concoction, such as Lisa’s Love Lotion ($6,) a mixture of rums, pineapple juice, coconut cream and choice of flavoring such as mango. Those not inclined for fruitiness may choose a Red Stripe beer from Jamaica, or a local brew on tap.

On the appetizer menu there are a variety of jerk and seafood items, as well as pinchos, which are seasoned chunks of meat served on skewers with dipping sauce. The chimichurri ribeye and jerk pork ($3/skewer) are both good, but a bit too timid, definitely not eye-popping with flavor or spice. The banana-guava ketchup dipping sauce for the jerk pork is a good addition as it adds some tropical flare. The empanadas – fried dough half-moons with meat stuffing – are a good, flavorful choice in the traditional Puerto Rican variety ($2.50 each,) but each one is small and leaves one wishing for more.

The hang-loose attitude of the place is reflected in the waitstaff as well, which is attentive and friendly, yet unobtrusive. Want to try all four types of dressings with the entree salad? No problem! The house salad is satisfying, and the mango-curry dressing is best, though the other dressings are fruity and tasty as well. The waitress is helpful and will offer suggestions for entrees, if asked.

There is a diverse entree menu with a mix of several fish and chicken options and one option each of vegetarian, beef and pork meals.

The Avo Cat ($16.50) is a walnut-breaded catfish fillet, pan-fried and topped with a unique avocado sauce and mango chutney. The fish has a good crunch, but is somewhat disappointing in flavor and the avocado sauce smothers the top of it. Rice and beans, which are very flavorful, accompany the meal. The whole meal is good sized along with the accompanying bread and salad. Although there’s nothing particularly Caribbean about it, the warm yeasty bread is addictive when eaten with the accompanying butter packets.

The BBQ Jerk Pork ($14.50) consists of two large hunks of pork, marinated in Jamaican spices and slow roasted. Despite the menu description, the “ribs” aren’t typical ribs, and the sweet jerk BBQ glaze is indistinguishable in the dish. The meat’s flavor is subtle, lacking jerk-flavored zip, and is a bit fatty (though the waitress did mention that in her description.) The meal comes with rice, beans and banana-guava ketchup as well.

Other good entree options may be the Jerk Chicken, Almond Papaya Shrimp or perhaps you fill up on drinks and appetizers if so inclined.

Overall, Jolly Bob’s is a great place to visit the Caribbean while avoiding the airplane fare. It has a fun atmosphere, tasty food and delicious fruity drinks. The entrees are good and although they are a bit pricey, they are generous and include bread and salad. It’s worth the visit to escape the doldrums.

About Jolly Bob’s

Location: 1210 Williamson St, Madison.

Phone: 608-251-3902

Website: http://www.jollybobs.com

Payment: only cash and checks, credit cards are not accepted (ATM on-site)

Price Range for Entrees: $13.50-18.50

Cuisine: Caribbean

Restaurant Hours: Every night, 4 p.m. (drinks and appetizers,) 5 p.m. (dinner,) and until 1 a.m. (late-night menu)