April 18, 2014

Straight outta Kingston: Jerk perfection, far south

“Go West, young man, go West!”

So American newspaperman Horace Greeley allegedly said in 1836, as encouragement for the  U.S. territorial expansion of the decade.

Unlike Greeley, I am not an advocate of Manifest Destiny—I care for a less racist, more filling objective: a square, inexpensive meal to fill the Saturday night stomach void for everyone on the meal plan. And rather than West, the University community ought to look to its immediate South.

Northern Woodlawn, with a focus near Cottage Grove Avenue, is home to a fair share of solid, relatively inexpensive restaurants. Daley’s (809 East 63rd Street) and Harold’s Chicken Shack (6419 South Cottage Grove) will easily fill and satisfy the palate for less than $10, guaranteed.

However, although their food is unquestionably delicious, the major drawback with these two is that their cooking is lardtastic. If the cost of takeout food is taken to include long-term health costs, as opposed to a strict dollar cost (thank you, Mr. Sanderson), the game changes. I love Harold’s, but I know that if I eat it routinely, I will “get dead” before the age of 30.

Fortunately, there exists a restaurant a little bit further down on the Grove that is inexpensive, reasonably nutritious, and, most importantly, serves the best-tasting Jamaican jerk chicken in the Chi. Do not allow the iron bars on the storefront windows to throw you. This is a true diamond in the rough.

Jamaican Jerk Spice (JJS), located at 6500 South Cottage Grove, is a slice of Kingston transplanted with love into the heart of Woodlawn. The wall décor consists of fading ’70s-issue Air Jamaica posters, rows of ginger beer line the drink cooler, and, in complete contrast to stereotypical Chicago impersonality, the ladies who work behind the counter have no sense of urgency in their voices.

It’s Jamaican-style cool.

But no self-respecting college man goes to any place on his own for the atmosphere.  The real question is, and always should be, the quality of the food. Even a food cart operating at a landfill ought to be vindicated if the food is good enough. So let’s talk food.

JJS offers the gamut of jerk-seasoned meats and fish, including chicken, catfish, shrimp, and tilapia. Traditional Jamaican plates like stewed chicken and oxtails are also available. For the purpose of this review, I went with the whole mixed jerk chicken ($10)—because, frankly speaking, to go to a jerk establishment and order tilapia is like going to McDonald’s and getting the Filet-O-Fish. Just say no to seafood.

At this place, $10 spent on a “whole mixed” yields a surprisingly heavy brown bag of food ejected from a bulletproof lazy Susan. Inside the bag, customers will find three components: a Styrofoam container filled with roughly a pound and a half of bone-in chicken, two slices of white bread, and exactly three small containers of jerk sauce. It is impossible to describe the meal as a whole; each component warrants an individual entry.

CHICKEN: It is, simply put, done right. The skin on each piece, thoroughly blackened with the namesake jerk spice, lends the chicken an attitude that puts supermarket rotisserie to shame. Pull back the skin, and the meat has an observably deep hue; it looks like it’s been roasting on low temperature for hours. It certainly tastes the part—the meat is succulent enough to fall right off of the bone. The aesthetic appeal lies in observing a pile of chicken bones stack up on the lid of the container as one forgets how much he or she has eaten. The chicken finishes with an aftertaste that is slightly spicy, and lingers for roughly 10 minutes. In sum: far from “boot leg.” This is art.

BREAD:  When I asked the cashier about it, she was very adamant that this is Jamaican hard dough bread (verbal stress on Jamaican). Note that this is not your dad’s white bread, nor is it the 11-cent-per-slice Wonder Bread that Harold’s adds to its fried chicken orders. The consistency is much thicker than sandwich bread, and it produces a slightly sweet aftertaste. What makes this bread truly special is that while it is included as a side, it may very easily be eaten on its own.

JERK SAUCE: While the chicken was mildly spicy on its own, turn to this if you want to feel the burn. Of the three small containers, using one was sufficient for my purposes in eating the whole chicken. I absolutely do not lay claim to being “a badass over here,” but I can hold some spice. If JJS pulled a Harold’s and covered its jerk chicken in this sauce by default, it seems likely that the place would either go out of business or become frequented by modern-era desperadoes.

In which case I would still come for the chicken.