Ultimate Jamaican Jerk Tour Slideshow
February 4, 2013
Jo Jo’s Jerk Pit and More
Started as a farmers' market near Kingston’s historic Devon House and embassy area, Jo Jo’s Jerk Pit & More eventually grew into a jerk establishment large enough to compete in U.S. barbecue cook-offs. Big enough certainly that its rotating menu also offers jerk conch and lamb, and decidedly non-Caribbean fare like pasta Alfredo, Philly cheesesteaks, and, should you really crave it, poutine. Wooden barrels turned into tables and chairs and picnic tables fill the tree-shaded patio, while the long bar is covered. Along with karaoke Thursdays, and live music Saturdays, rum and liquor companies sponsor one-off parties that bring out Kingston’s young and beautiful, like a recent one that's theme was "A.B.C.—Anything But Clothes." Better come sexy to this jerk joint.
Sweetwood Jerk Joint
With some of its palm trees wrapped in Jamaica’s green, yellow, and black colors, and speakers pumping out dancehall reggae tunes, Sweetwood Jerk Joint leaves no question as to which country it’s located in. The outdoor restaurant with an enclosed park-bench seating area lies smack inside Kingston’s commercial district. You’ll be dipping your fingers into bite-sized chunks of their sweet grilled meat sitting side by side with business folks enjoying their lunch and after-work ritual. Just watch and follow the locals closely to gauge just how much of the mean homemade pepper sauce to use. As the name of the 4-year-old family operation suggests, the chefs at Sweetwood grill their pork and chicken over sweetwood rather than the usual pimento wood used for jerk, and they roast breadfruit and Johnny cake dumplings in the coals as well. Their mannish water stands out, too, a sort of soup/stew made from goat tripe and head, as well as coco, dasheen, sweet potato, scallion, carrot, and thyme. It’s so deliciously basic that "you can taste the animal," said manager Kim Chambers of the traditional wedding night food made to get grooms ready to go, so to speak.
Boston Jerk Centre
What Memphis, Texas, or Kansas City (take your pick) is to BBQ, Boston Bay is to Jerk. Jerk is said to have originated in the parish of Portland, but it’s more likely that large-scale jerk preparation came of age here. Either way, the region has a reputation for serving some of the hottest jerk around, and any serious "jerkologist" needs to pay homage to the Boston Jerk Centre (and watch out that they don’t pay a tourist premium as sometimes happens). Not much more than a series of huts and stands erected right off the route that takes you from Kingston around the island’s sparse east tip, the jerk center isn’t much to look at, either. But it does make for a great "to-go" stop along the rugged northeast coast neat Port Antonio, where some of Jamaica’s original banana boat era resorts still operate. To accompany piping-hot chicken and breadfruit roasted in fire for your road trip, grab some bananas and coconuts from the roadside fruit stands as well. Jerk aficionados will want to come back in summer for the ever-grander Portland Jerk Festival , which in Jamaica means a ton of live music to boot.
Lyming at Walkerswood
Located off the route from Kingston to Ocho, Lyming at Walkerswood may have the nicest view of all jerk houses. Fronted by a wood-carved logo (where the "Y" in Lyming is in the shape of a martini glass), the main building’s backyard terrace overlooks the kind of verdant hills the island is famous for. On last Sundays of the month, Lyming puts on a brunch; on other occasions deejays spin. If you’re young at heart, swing on the spiffy play set out back. Or, after stuffing yourself on curried goat, try to snag the oversized rattan lounger that hangs from a tree and stay put for awhile.
Owner Tony Rerrie started out cooking jerk as a hobby for private parties. Now, with an original outlet in Montego Bay, a new outpost in Kingston, and one about to open in Belize, his Scotchies is the closest thing Jamaica has to a jerk empire. And 7-year-old Scotchies Too, just west of Ocho on the north coast route, is hardly an afterthought. Visitors start licking their chops as soon as they walk from the parking lot down a long trellised corridor, which sets the chilled mood to come in the inner garden’s tin-roofed dining gazebo. "The key to our jerk," said manager Kim Cooper, "is smoke, steam, and grill." After either a dry or wet rub and overnight marinating, about 100 to 150 chickens and about 10 deboned pigs get smoked, steamed, and grilled daily over sweetwood and pimento sticks. The sticks are cut every morning and when they dry out are used as charcoal as per the norm in jerking. Guests can get right up to the kitchen when ordering and watch the whole process, how moisture oozes out of the sticks as cooks turn them, how meat steams under the "zinc" or corrugated metal sheets. Best of all is to watch how fast the crew cleaves whole chickens and chops them into juicy morsels with the flourish of a stage show.
Ultimate Jerk Centre & Rest Stop
You can’t miss the Ultimate name painted on a huge rock in front of the establishment located opposite the popular Green Grotto Caves in Discovery Bay. With palm trees blowing in the wind and pinkish concrete benches and tables under the trees and umbrellas, Rest Stop is an apropos part of their name. A metal-roofed gazebo lets breezes flow through the large circular bar and indoor seating area. Besides jerk of various styles, for a change of flavors, you can also order an escoveitch fish — a fried fish dish prepared with onions, peppers, and carrots. Friday is happy hour and with their end of the month music parties, Ultimate Jerk Centre & Rest Stop’s management promises to "take you back to a simpler place and time." During cricket season, fans and curious visitors can spend an afternoon sipping rum drinks and watching weekend matches on the pitch next to the jerk house.
The Pork Pit
Considering that it’s located on Montego Bay’s so-called Hip Strip along Gloucester Avenue, The Pork Pit is a quite modest affair — OK, slightly bedraggled at first glance. Taxis and tour operators regularly deliver out-of-towners, but don’t worry, you can’t miss the yellow stone and brick building on your own anyway, especially with the logo next to the weathered outside stairs that shows an upside down pig unceremoniously roasting on a pit. The best place to eat is out back by the open-air jerk pit that looks like a boxing ring with two roasters facing off. You can order steamed fish, but really, at a place called the pork pit? When you’re ready to work it all off, just head up the road for a swim and snorkel at the historic Doctor’s Cave beach. But first, pay for your souvenir T-shirt.
Jerky’s Bar & Grill
Appropriately named, the decade-old, Tiki-style, open-air establishment in a Montego Bay shopping center is one of the more polished jerk houses there is. Just look for the huge bright-red Red Stripe signage on top of the thatch roof. The main floor has stylish spiral-backed wrought-iron garden style chairs and small wooden tables (outdoor seating looks at a gas station). Like any respectable jerk joint, you can peek into the kitchen and see the grilling going on. The long, curved bar area (thatch-covered as well) has a back-lighted picture menu. If you’re jerked out, just grab a panini. Friday nights a DJ spins; Saturday is karaoke time.
Ossie's Jerk Centre
Negril’s main tourism drag is Norman Manley Boulevard. Ossie’s is located on the other, non-beach side of the Great Morass, a large nature reserve. With a slightly off-center hand-painted sign outside and folksy signs painted right on the walls inside, Ossie’s mood is also the opposite of Bourbon Beach’s energetic vibe. It’s the type of place where locals play dominos and you can imagine a movie being made there with a homespun theme. Yet for all the restaurant’s modesty, Ossie himself has plenty of fans who come from far and wide to dine, especially on his famous jerk pork. You’ll likely leave with some of his homemade hot sauce in your checked baggage.
A modest 12-room hotel right on the water in Negril, Bourbon Beach looks like the kind of place where you go to hang with dorky tourists in braids and listen to live reggae music. It’s pretty much the Jamaica tourism cliché, and why not? On the highway approach, colorful hand-chalked signs jump out at you and announce happy hours and ladies’ nights schedules, as well as entertainment lineups. The bacchanalian atmosphere can be enjoyed from the sand and wooden stools at the bar, or you can watch major performers on stage from Sizzla and Yellowman to roots reggae stars like former Marley backup singer Marcia Griffiths. Oh yeah, and they have a jerk kitchen, a blue-tiled one at that, with a fine reputation.