The thunder rolled. The lightning flashed. The rain fell. My belly growled. I waved my arms, the tempest ceased, and the sun came out. I can’t say there was a rainbow because my friend and I had dashed into a Jamaican restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. We were too busy looking at all the choices on our menus to care about thunder, lightning, rain, or rainbows. Our concerns were tied to stopping the rumbling in our growling bellies.
Located on one of the many high-energy strips in Chicago, we wandered into Ja’ Grill Jamaican Restaurant and Lounge at 1008 W. Armitage Avenue. Nice and spacious on the inside, just enough for the crowd that fills the place, Ja’ Grill certainly has the American sports bar look to it. Fortunately it isn’t a sports bar for the common fraternity boy and the perky candy stripe girls who love they songs the frat boys sing when they’re drunk. My friend and I grabbed a two-seat table near the window thanks to the hostess who had a Botox grimace on her face. Little did she show, we were going to need a larger table. The waitress, who truly understood the concept of customer delight, offered some great recommendations — barring the suggestions for plates that had pork or beef since neither my friend nor me have no pork and very little beef in our diets.
After looking at the menu briefly, we ordered Jamaican beef patties, coco bread, and honey wings. But you just said you have very little beef in your diet, Gino. Yes, I did and it would be Mount Vesuvius to go into a Jamaican food outfit and walk out without having had a beef patty. Ground up nicely and baked in a flaky crust, those patties were what it’s all about — whatever that means; it just sounds right. For those of you who recall when KFC was once called Kentucky Fried Chicken and they served these buttered rolls before they introduced those danger things called biscuits, you remember just how tasty those buttered rolls were. You’d let your lover have the left side of the bed without argument because they were so good. Well, Ja’ Grill had coco bread and it was reminiscent of those Kentucky Fried Chicken rolls. Don’t get me started on the honey wings. I felt like I was doing my fair share of sampling at a certain jerk mall1 in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Done up with the amount of spices my grandparents used to put on their chicken, my friend and I munched those wings with great appreciation. After polishing off those few items, we were then ready to handle some serious business.
It was time to get down with some food that only the big boys can deal with — or those of us with huge appetites. We had to request a larger table, of which the waitress was understanding and compliant. The hostess with the Botox grimace thought we were being facetious. After she saw what all came from the kitchen to our table, she then had an expression on her face that defied the stiff wince she had all along. We were quite shocked when she opened her mouth wide enough to say, “Boyaka! Boyaka!” as the waitress plopped down plate after plate of Jamaican wonder stuff.
One main staple in the Jamaican diet is rice and peas. The rice is cooked in coconut milk instead of water and that gives the rice a natural flavour without the need for salt. Add the peas — or beans for those who may have a problem with the word peas — and you have something all about tasty. There was no way that we were going to pass up on plantains. These were the best plantains I have had outside of Jamaica, betchu dat. They were not brown as me, which means they were cooked just right. And they must have been picked at the right time of year because they were sweet without being overripe. Heaven, I say, heaven.
The couple sitting next to us looked on in amazement as we directed fork after fork of curry shrimp and jerk catfish into our mouths. Hell, I have given up the notion that I will ever get my six pack abs although I have been flattening my tummy some. The curry shrimp was so delicious that I knew there had to be some Jamaicans in the kitchen stirring the pot. You cannot cook food like what we had by simply following directions. No, the curry shrimp and the jerk catfish reminded me too much of the jerk malls that you can find throughout Jamaica.
To add shock to our order, we ordered more rice and peas, more plantains, and some stew chicken. What? No ox tails? you ask. If I had to come up with a word under duress to describe the chicken, I’d settle with succulent. It was hard keeping it on the fork and not because it found it’s way into our mouths with a quickness. The chicken was so tender that it was falling apart. Served up in a curry gravy with carrots, it’s the kind of dish you serve up if there is someone you want to fall under your spell. Well, it may help if you’re attractive, too, but the stew chicken may give you an extra boost.
For dessert, we decided to mix things up. We went to Vosges to indulge in some chocolate purchases. Getting exposure to the many eateries, food boutiques, and holes in the wall in Chicago has made me a bit of a snob. Well, I would not go that far, but I do have a greater appreciation for tasty and exotic. Chocolate with Ecuadorian plantains. Chocolate with ancho and chipotle chillies. Chocolate with ginger and wasabi. Chocolate with New Orleans chickory coffee. Chocolate with Oaxacan guajillo and pasilla chillies Chocolate with sweet curry. Ice cream with curry in it. Hmmm. Yes, I am a snob, but a snob with great taste.
Ja’ Grill certainly turned out to be a great pick for a Jamaican restaurant. Considering it is buried in the heart of a community where the palate may be slightly open to extremely exotic dishes, the restaurant is very much true to the food served in Jamaica. Only in New York City and Toronto have I had authentic Jamaican food outside of the country. It would have been nice to have had some june plum juice, but I will just have to wait until I go back. As to prices, I would be hard pressed to argue about the tab that my friend and I ran up with our overindulgence. The shocked expression on the hostess’s face who had the Botox wince was rather priceless, though. Suffice it to say, Ja’ Grill is high on the list of recommended restaurants. Go! Go! And get yourself some loving from Ja’ Grill’s Jamaican oven.
1Any outdoor grill set that may be found in Jamaica. Vendors slow cook curried and jerk meats — chicken, goat, fish, beef, pork, or tongue. The aromas may be detected from miles away and people are often found sleeping on couches or under trees after heavy indulging of the food from the outdoor grills.