Be a jerk, get the chicken
Fiery jerk chicken with cabbage and carrots from Jamaica Jerk Villa
I can still remember the tingling sensation I would get in the back of my throat, after devouring the heavily spice-rubbed jerk chicken in Boston Beach and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. The chickens there are rubbed down as if they were staying at the Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel, except on the island, it's all about the allspice. Created by slaves who were evading British troops in the hills of Jamaica, the "Maroons" would pick native spice berries, use the local peppers, and rub a paste onto their chickens to help preserve them, as they hid in the majestic hills. The "jerk" seasoning is usually a paste or very wet rub, consisting of that native spice - the only one indigenous to the New World - that comes from local pimento trees. The tiny berries are blended with fresh thyme (actually, a much wider leaf called beef thyme), as well as fiery scotch bonnet peppers, which make habaneros seem downright tame. Fresh ginger is another key component, along with some oil to bind it all together.
Rubbed into every possible crevice, the chickens are then placed over the branches from the pimento tree, which are arrayed like grill grates, hovering over a batch of smoldering hardwood. It's obviously impossible to replicate this cooking method in Chicago, but it's not such a stretch to bring that distinctive sauce/rub back to life.
There are a few places that do jerk right. I've always been a fan of Daddy-O's Jerk Pit on the South Side, but more recently, the sauce at Jamaica Jerk Villa - which has two locations on the South Side - really made me stand up and take notice. It has that elusive balance, like the best Mexican moles or Thai curries, that combines sweet, sour and gentle, lingering heat. I could slather that jerk sauce on a piece of toast and be happy. If you want to see how they make it, be sure to watch the video here after 11:30 a.m. today.
The new South rises at Custom House Tavern
Tonight at 10 p.m. I'm focusing on the South, but rather than leave the country, I'm staying within the Continental U.S. There are a handful of restaurants in Chicago that are now shifting their attention to some of the wonderful Southern dishes that have been absent from local menus. Shrimp and grits (the new tuna tartar-avocado), chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, Johnnycakes... they're all popping up it seems with regular frequency, from bar menus to higher-end, three-star establishments. I'll show you three distinctive places where Southern cooking is as much a result of the chefs' own personal experience as it is a demand by hungry patrons. You can check out the video here, after 10:30 p.m. tonight.