Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Trip to 'Jamaica Jerk' Brings Anything But Dread

Jamaica Jerk
1631 W. Howard St., Chicago

What I ate: Jamaican Beef Patty, Island Battered Fish, Fried Plantains, Corn Bread, Sorrel-Pineapple drink

"It's delicious, mon."

So said my decidedly non-dreadlocked sister Allison after consuming her meal at Jamaica Jerk, where we lunched on Wednesday.

Granted, the restaurant just west of the Howard 'L' station--which bills itself as serving Authentic Caribbean Cuisine--has long been a favorite of Allison, my mom and I after they were alerted to its existence via a Taste of Chicago booth several years ago.

Still, it's been quite a while since we last ate there, but that didn't stop the amiable couple who run the place from recognizing Allison as a repeat customer.

Allison, in her new glasses,
with Sorrel-Pineapple juice
Yet although I was very much looking forward to once again eating at Jamaica Jerk and writing about it as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour, things got off to a somewhat inauspicious start.

Arriving, somewhat randomly, at a few minutes before 1:00pm, we were greeted by a sign saying "CLOSED."  Fortunately, a nearby note stated that the restaurant would open at 1:00 (an hour later than normal).

This wasn't a major inconvenience, except that the stretch of street in front of what was once the Howard Theater is what I would diplomatically describe as "not such a great area." Fortunately a group of loiterers we drove past in parking around the corner had moved on before I began shooting photos of the restaurant, one that I couldn't immediately enter.

Once inside the attractive restaurant that plays Jamaican music (and other reggae; e.g. UB40), we were well-treated but encountered another minor hiccup when I placed my order.

Although I was planning to accompany Coconut Shrimp--my favorite Jamaica Jerk entree--with something a bit more exploratory (likely Jerk Pork), I was told by the waiter/proprietor that they were out of coconut shrimp. After confirming that the Island Battered Fish--strips of ocean perch--is coated in the same coconut breading and could be accompanied by the spicy mango chutney that comes with the shrimp, I ordered that for my entree.

Forgoing the Jerk Pork, I also ordered an appetizer of Jamaican Beef Patties, which for $2.20 included just one patty, but it was generously sized and delicious. Mon.

Though the shell wasn't quite the same as that used on Argentinean empanadas I've had, there was a clear similarity. The ground beef filling had a good kick to it, but was flavorful without being overwhelmingly spicy. Given the preceding annoyances, it was a great way to start our actual meal; Allison is vegetarian so she didn't partake in the appetizer.

But as shown above, we got a half-carafe of Sorrel-Pineapple juice, which was also terrific. Although it reminds of sangria, it is non-alcoholic and per the menu, sorrel is a traditional Christmas drink made "from the sepals of a member of the hibiscus family."

For her entree, Allison went--as usual--with the Vegetarian Special, comprised of jerk tofu patties accompanied by spinach mixed with plantains, red peppers and onions.

As anticipated, she loved it, and let me taste some of the spinach medley, which was very good.

Lunch entrees at Jamaica Jerk are accompanied by a choice of two side dishes (from eight options) and we both went with fried plantains and a chunk of cornbread, which was excellent.

While I happily devoured all of my Island Battered Fish, which worked well with the mango chutney--one of the standard accoutrements, Jamaican relish, was also MIA--I can't say that I liked it nearly as much as the Coconut Shrimp.

Still, both Allison and I were well-satiated and abundantly satisfied with our all-too-infrequent visit to a friendly Jamaican joint that lives up to the Bob Marley-copped headline of a newspaper review displayed within: "Let's get together and feel alright."

Thus, it's never a bad thing to have a reason to return.

Of course, I still have many transcontinental cuisines to explore, and while the neighborhood did make me a tad uneasy, we had no real issues and I was happy to note Red's Belizean Cuisine at 7605 Paulina, just around the corner from Jamaica Jerk.

I'm less likely, however, to soon venture to Jenny's Gourmet Restaurant, located just down Howard Street. While it might be efficient to eat Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Italian food all in one fell swoop, I'm a bit skeptical of places whose menu aims to be quite that ethnically comprehensive. 

I certainly won't dissuade you from going, but given the featured flavorings of this piece, I hope I've left at least a few of you rubbing your bellies and saying, "Jamaican me hungry."

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