The scent of allspice-infused meat roasting over smoking coals of pimento wood is the sort of thing food writers attempt to turn into poetry, but capturing the aroma adequately is like trying to grasp the air that carries the fragrance. Smoky, earthy and full of spice like Christmas, with a subtle heat that tickles the nose, the smell is intoxicating.
Like all barbecue, jerk is a technique more than a recipe or dish, but this version is closely tied to the pimento trees that grow all over Jamaica. On the island, the tree's berries are dried to become allspice, the flavor foundation of jerk along with Scotch bonnet chiles and scallions. Dried wood from the tree is used to fire the pits and grills where jerk is cooked and some cooks use green branches of pimento wood to suspend the meat over the coals. Occasionally, leaves and smaller branches are added to the fire when more smoke is desired.
Unfortunately, as with many dishes with a strong geographic roots, jerk chicken loses its edge quickly as you move away from Jamaica. The first thing to go is the pimento wood. While the tree grows like a weed in Jamaica, it's quite hard to find in any quantity outside the tropics. Scotch bonnet chiles can be hard to find too. Habaneros make a decent substitute, but you'll rarely encounter a handcrafted marinade in the States anyway. Most Jamaican restaurants and home cooks lean heavily on store-bought preparations like Walkerswood to conjure the smoky heat of Jamaica for their jerk.
The Island Spot
The Island Spot
2661 Midway Road No. 105, 972-447-7000, theislandspot.net. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday. $$
Jerk chicken $9.95
Brown stew chicken $9.95
Curry mutton $12.95
Fried plantains $2.50
Agatha Pryce, who's been cooking at the Island Spot, a Jamaican cafe in Carrollton, for the past eight months, used to be a home cook. She watched over the kitchen from afar when her son Richard Thomas opened the restaurant with a partner in June 2010 after moving from Spanish Town in Jamaica. When the partner left, Thomas reinvigorated the business and brought on his mother to cook full time.
Pryce leans on Walkerswood, too, but tinkers with the recipe enough to make it her own. She adds fresh allspice, wrapped in a kitchen towel and cracked with the back of a ladle to amp up the spice. She adds fresh green scallions to liven up the marinade. She adds fresh Scotch bonnets to boost the heat.
Every day, cooks clean and wash chicken quarters in a bath of water and vinegar before rubbing Pryce's marinade into the flesh, skin and joints before it rests overnight. The next morning before lunch service it's laid on a grill where little bits of the marinade and chicken juices drip down to the gas fired elements below. The drops hiss and spit little wisps that eventually build into a billowing perfume of smoke that's almost as effective as burning pimento wood.
Apparently it's good enough. The restaurant does brisk business, and if you look around the tables, most of them are adorned with hunks of blackened and blistered jerk chicken. The small dish of tangy-sweet jerk-flavored barbecue sauce that sits on the plate is completely unnecessary for the grilled bird, but it does work nicely poured over a bland mix of red beans and rice. The side would be right at home on any family table in Jamaica, just like the steamed cabbage and carrots tinged yellow with turmeric.
While chicken dominates the dining room, an dish of stewed oxtail deserves space on tables too. The medallions of fall-apart-tender beef are so fatty it's almost disconcerting, but picking through the carnage rewards a diner with intensely rich morsels of impossibly flavorful beef. A curry of mutton (served only on weekends) is just as fatty, but the meat you find while poking around with your fork is delicious and worth the effort.
If fatty meat is not your thing, the brown stew chicken is leaner and just as satisfying. The dish may not bear the most provocative name, but the caramel-based sauce comes off savory, not sweet. All of these stews boast modest spice and heat that warms just enough to wake you up, but not enough to make you perspire.
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Other dishes disappoint. A curried chicken lacks the depth of other dishes and tastes bland; meat patties are so bad they should be removed from the menu. The dry pastry in these prefabricated pies encases meat with the texture of toothpaste, which is a shame considering the potential. Imagine warm, flaky pastry filled with the kitchen's best leftovers spun anew. A fresh jerk chicken meat patty or one packed with shredded oxtail would be absolutely outstanding.
Desserts are lackluster too. Mango cheesecake is loose and unappetizing, and bread pudding is dry and rubbery. A far better choice for someone craving something sweet is the saccharine and boozy rum punch that's a steal during happy hour at $4, but a little pricey during the evenings at $8. It's not really dessert, but if you've been to Jamaica you'll recognize fruity flavors that might just inspire a mental vacation.
Really, though, the jerk chicken is the best reason to come here. Over my four visits the dish only disappointed me once. Because it takes so long to grill, the chicken is precooked before lunch and dinner service, so it's best to come early if you want the freshest, juiciest bird possible. Late in the afternoon, on a Saturday, the chicken was dry with flabby skin. The rest of the time it was absolutely delicious, evoking a warm Caribbean island 1,500 miles away.
It's not too hard to see why Thomas goes back once a year, even though he moved to the States in 2000. It's warm and sunny every day, and the beaches boast soft, white sand and clear water the color of an old glass bottle. The people are amazing. Every problem is "no problem," and while they walk down the streets they sing. They sing while they drive, too. Really, they sing a lot of the time. It must be the chicken.