Jerk chicken spot offers taste of Jamaica

April 16, 2010 9:48:01 AM PDT
Chicago doesn't have an enormous Jamaican population, yet there are still a handful of good places to get jerk chicken.

Chicago doesn't have a ton of great jerk joints, but there are a few on the South Side worth exploring, including a grab-and-go operation near Chinatown.

The key to any good jerk chicken, is the jerk sauce. At Jamaica Jerk Villa in the South Loop, all of the employees are from Jamaica, so they know what true Jerk is.

"An expert blend of just the right things. Cause I mean jerk is basically the thing you can get from any store, but it's just how it's put together-that's what makes a good jerk," said Peter McKnight, owner of Jamaica Jerk Villa.

Here, it means lots of onions and garlic, along with fiery scotch bonnet peppers and fresh ginger. The hallmark spice is allspice - a rare New World spice that comes from the native pimento tree. All of the ingredients - along with vinegar and oil - are blended until smooth. The marinade is poured over fresh chickens, which get additional sprinklings of absinthe and Lawry's seasoning salt. The jerk is rubbed into each and ever visible crevice. After it's refrigerated overnight, the chickens are placed over the large grill for about 45 minutes. While they're not necessarily slow-smoked like they would be in Jamaica, the pieces still come out juicy and blistered. The quality has led to high demand for both its South Loop store, as well as its other location on the South Side.

"Probably up to about 700 pounds of chicken for the day. At 79th Street we can go from anywhere to about 1,000-1,200 pounds a day," McKnight said.

The chicken can be plated with a number of traditional sides, including rice and beans - doused in a rich, brown gravy - or steamed cabbage. Callaloo is another option, it's kind of a Jamaican spinach. Other entrees include oxtail or curried goat; they also carry beef patties from the Caribbean Bakery in Rogers Park. McKnight says since a lot of his customers hail from Jamaica, he needs to keep the flavors of the menu options as close to home as possible.

"Basically we just keep what a lot of people know. A lot of people go to the islands and they see a lot of things. So we've got most of what they've got," said McKnight.

Jerk Villa
8 E. 22nd St.
201 N. State St.

Also located at:
737 W. 79th St.

Also mentioned:
Daddy-O's Jerk Pit
7518 S Cottage Grove Ave.

Jamaica Jerk
1631 W. Howard St.