Friday, March 30, 2007

Go Ahead, be a Jerk

I love it when I stumble across a gem. A few weeks ago, I was driving to a friend’s house when I spied a banner draped across an old jalopy of a car.

“Jerk Chicken Center” proclaimed the banner. Meanwhile, the windshield of the car advised us of its $1500 selling price. The neon “Open” sign hanging from the tree was dark, so we drove on by. While on a trip to the same friend’s house last weekend, the sign beckoned me in all its neon glory.

A smoke-filled, dirt driveway, illuminated by Christmas light-wrapped trees led us to an old house fronted by four split 50 gallon drum barbeque pits. A hand written sign informed us that the food was inside. “Inside” turned out to be an old garage. Reggae music filled the Frenches-Yellow-Mustard room. The walls were covered in pictures of soccer teams and posters of reggae bands. On the ceiling, next to the tracks where the garage door used to open, a plus sign was formed by four fluorescent light fixtures. Two of them were even working, and one had wires dangling downward. A line formed from the small window in the wall and snaked its way past a pool table. The menu was hand written in black marker on the inside of the lid of a Styrofoam clamshell and posted above the tiny window. It consists of six items; chicken, pork, fish, soup, festival, and fried saltfish. As I tried to get a closer look at the small menu, a gentleman in line professed, “Just meat, but it is the best in Atlanta.” While my wife waited in line, I stepped outside. One of proprietors gave me a verbal tour of the restaurant. Standing in front of the smoking barrels, he dosed the chicken that covered the grill with a jerk marinade. It consists of herbs, spices, and peppers, among other things. The soup, he informed me, was pepper-pot today. It is a blend of peppers, chicken and callaloo. Callaloo are the leafy greens from the taro root plant and resemble collards. Yesterday it was fish soup. The fish is stuffed with okra, wrapped in foil and cooked en papillote. The pork is marinated loin and cooked on a separate grill from the chicken.

Back inside, the line moved slowly as vendors came in and opened their cases of wares. The ladies were hawking jewelry, fragrances and lotion. When we were approached by one the ladies, I informed her that I already smelled spectacular and therefore did not need any fragrance. The line had only inched along so I went back outside to chat some more. What kind of fish is it? I queried. Red snapper was the response. My informative friend from the line joined me and gave me more information. “This is based on the concept of “big yard”. In Jamaica someone in the neighborhood always has a big yard and that is where the neighborhood gets together to cook. You could show up with no laces in your shoes and get some soup.” “We would get a boat going. Not a real boat, but everyone in the neighborhood would be assigned something to gather…you get ackee, you get coconut…” Apparently, there is a rule that if the branches of a fruit tree extend over a fence then the fruit is fair game. But I digress…

Not only is this a carryout restaurant, but there is also a bar through a door in the garage-restaurant. Different reggae played in this room. There is a selection of beers including Guinness, Heinekin, and the obligatory Red Stripe, available from the residential refrigerator. All are three dollars. The Jamaican flag hangs over a small, dark fireplace and posters of Bob Marley cover the walls. Small tables and chairs are scattered around along with a couple of couches.

About forty minutes had passed from our arrival to our departure for home to enjoy our food. Not the fastest place going. The smell of the place already had me convinced that it was worth the wait. The chicken was moist and flavorful. It was served with a barbeque sauce that was just sweet enough and had a nice kick without being overly hot. The “festival” is basically fried logs of sweetish cornbread, very good for sopping up sauce or dipping in the soup. The pepper-pot was very a flavorful concoction with chunks of potato, bits of greens, peppers and chicken. This also had a nice spice to it. I assumed the fried saltfish would bear some resemblance to the salt cod known as bacalao in Spain and baccalà in Italy. Sadly, it did not. It had a yellow color and a still too firm and salty texture. It seemed to me that it had not been sufficiently reconstituted. The best salt cod is milky white and delicately textured when prepared well. For only two dollars, it was a long way from ruining my evening. Unfortunately they had run out of pork. It would have been thirty minutes for more to be ready, so we opted to double our chicken order. Is short, the food was excellent.

This is not just a place for food, but somewhere where you can experience a culture. My informative friend, who is a transplant from Kingstown, Jamaica, via a long stay in Hartford Connecticut, summed it up when he gestured to the barren yard outside the house and said “all you need is beach”.

About

Jerk Chicken Center

Address Highway 124, Corner of Rockbridge Rd and Rockbridge Rd.

Hours: Monday – Saturday 5 P.M. Until...

Price $10 and less

Cash Only

No reservations, no call aheads



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