OK, you have read my quibble about local DC folks dismissing the county that I live in, Prince George’s, as a culinary wasteland. But such disrespect has only spurred me to increase my efforts in finding decent eateries to disprove that, such as my blogs on Asian Wings Cafe (see blog) and Tiffin (see blog). The DMV area is a magnet for attracting different immigrant groups to the area, and PG is no exception. With this migration, groups of newcomers have formed pockets in the various suburbs, and along with this, there has been a burgeoning of various ethnic cuisine eateries, especially those that cater to folks of African descent from the Caribbean and Africa. The county may not boast as many high-end restaurants as in the wealthier counties or downtown DC, but this fact does not dampen the discerning palates of the local folks, and this is evident in some of the eateries that I have encountered recently.
Conversing with a gentleman who hails from Guyana in a house party, I was querying him about some of his favorite local eats. He mentioned of a Jamaican jerk shack in PG that many from the Caribbean have raved about, which I became quite excited about. I have had my fair share of Caribbean eats around my area, especially from Mom-and-Pop eateries and a local Caribbean food chain. However, many of my visits have been marred by uninspired cooking that has been watered down to cater to the American palate, or the food has been lacking in authentic seasoning or even cooked improperly (and unfortunately) in the oven. With this new recommendation in mind, I was looking forward to checking this new eatery out.
Just Jerk is tucked away in the corner of the parking lot of a sad-looking strip mall, opposite from an equally nearly lifeless Red Roof Inn in Lanham. My first trip to it was very frustrating as I had a hard time locating it and maneuvering in the area whose roads made turnarounds close to impossible. Walking into the deep-green and bright yellow wooden shack which immediately livens up its drap surroundings, you will notice a large order counter across from a long eating counter, along with a donation box requesting contributions of crayons and “composition” books (haven’t seen that word since my English school days) for Jamaican school children. The air is filled with sounds of Jamaican radio, either the pulsating Reggae beats or the local crime report (“suspect had dark complection” – that wouldn’t fly here at all). A large poster hung next to the order counter spelled out the simple menu with its short list of offerings. This joint exudes Jamaica without even trying.
As an appetizer, Jamaican patties make the perfect small bite, and this place offers their versions made with beef, chicken, or spinach. The Beef Patty had a crust that flaked easily under the fork, exposing the beef stuffing that had a strong flavor very much like oxtail. It was perfectly seasoned, and the “beefiness” was not off-putting but very savory and tempting to any beef lover. For the vegetarians, the Spinach Patty had an equally flaky pastry even though it was a bit milder than the meat version. The spinach stuffing was perfectly seasoned without the bitterness of the spinach leaf, tasting much like the Caribbean leaf, Callaloo. There was a certain unctiousness and smoothness in this bite that I did not expect from a vegetarian offering. Both the patties tasted fresh and well-made, having a subtle quality that put them above those I have tasted in other establishments.
Touting itself as a Jerk House, the house’s special of Jerk Chicken was the first main course that I ordered. I was looking forward with great anticipation to this dish, and each bite was a revelation in savouring proper Jerk cooking after having tasted less-satisfactory versions elsewhere. This place really gets this food preparation right. The meat had the flavorings and seasonings well-penetrated into every morsel while remaining moist and succulent. The skin was crispy and smoky from the charcoal grilling, with the fat completely rendered, which is the only way Jerk should be cooked, unlike the baked versions. But it is the jerk spice flavorings on top that make this dish truly successful and spectacular, tasting of the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, the dark sweet notes of allspice, the woodsy and minty Caribbean thyme, and the depth of flavor brought by vegetable aromatics. On another visit, an order of the Jerk Kingfish had similar treatment but I found the fish a bit too dry for my taste, which is common in seafood cooking outside of North America. The accompanying sides were equally well-cooked and well-seasoned, attempting to steal the show from the main star: the rice and peas filled with flavor with al dente and not mushy pigeon peas (obviously house cooked and not tinned), the fried sweet plantains cooked at the right stage of sweet ripeness which should be called dessert, and the stewed cabbage made fragrant from fresh thyme and still slightly crunchy from the light cooking. The portions were big and I could make two meals out of each order. As I write this blog those fantastic jerk flavors are still haunting my taste buds.
Jamaican cuisine has a long history of vegetarian/vegan cuisine as many eating establishments try to cater to the Rastafarian community who follow such a diet. It was interesting to see on the menu a Jerk Portabello mushroom sandwich named after the Jamaican Black Nationalist, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and I had to try it. The huge caps of mushroom were properly grilled with a slathering of the jerk which tended to overwhelm the subtle mushroom caps with its strong seasoning. However, I enjoyed the “meaty” texture sandwiched by the pieces of fluffy Coco bread that had a slightly sweet and rich quality. The Cassava/Yucca fries that accompanied the sandwich blew me away with the crispy exterior and soft mash-potato texture inside – obviously, the roots have been boiled and pureed, before being extruded into the deep fryer. This brought back memories of the Churros I ate for my first blog, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog). What a wonderful Caribbean version of fries!
No decent Caribbean eatery would have Curry Chicken amiss from its menu, and Just Jerk is no exception. Its version was quite tasty and decent, but a bit dry for me. It could have done with a bit more sauce and more heat in the curry spices. I have to remind myself often that Caribbean Curry is not quite as fragrant and spicy as South Indian curry dishes that I grew up tasting from Indian restaurants in Southeast Asia. It always amazes me to see this Indian-influenced dish cooked in Caribbean establishments, pointing to the history of British colonization and the importing of East Indians to the region. As for another dish, Brown Stew, a friend’s verdict on this Jamaican staple was thumbs-up with the chicken well-seasoned and falling off the bone -it is definitely high on the next order list.
There is only one choice for dessert in this small eatery – Sweet Potato Cake. I could not resist ordering a slice of this during one of my visits since the offering of a single dessert by any establishment only spells “Must be good.” And it sure was! The cake was moist and light, with subtle but discernible notes of molasses, cinnamon, cloves, and dry ginger. The white frosting coating was light, not too sweet, and slightly tangy. I could have this for snack any day, which would transport me to taking High Tea on a Caribbean plantation.
Just Jerk truly delivers on the expectations based on its name. Finally, I have found a Jerk place that is veritable with its delectable offerings, pointing to how this dish is truly savored on the Caribbean island. Yes, the orders can be a bit slow, the jerk may run out before closing (they cook just enough in small batches), and the offerings are limited. But what they do and offer, they get it just right.