If you have been to Jamaica or know something about its cuisine, then you are undoubtedly familiar with its most popular dish: jerk.
Dating back to the island's earliest days, Christopher Columbus got an eyeful of Jamaica's beginnings at the end of the 15th century, when he watched its indigenous inhabitants, the Arawaks, preserve meat by adding peppers, allspice (locally known as pimento), and sea salt. Today, homes, restaurants, and jerk huts, makeshift eateries that dot Jamaica's shorelines and street corners (also called jerk shacks or jerk centers) serve up the notoriously spicy jerked protein — usually pork, chicken, or fish — in teary-eyed abundance.
Which brings us to the defining statement Andrew Lyew made to his fellow Jamaican-born friends and first-time restaurant partners Marie Simms and Trevor Forrest a few months ago when he saw the tiny, vacant strip mall property near the bus stop on 19th Avenue just north of Indian School Road.
"I think that's our jerk hut."
And so it was. And its jerk chicken may be the best in the Valley.
It is the same recipe that has been put on the trio's respective family tables for years. Prepared in traditional fashion, the raw chicken is "jerked" (palpated with a fork), rubbed with lime, garlic, salt, Scotch bonnet peppers (a variety of chili pepper found mainly in the Caribbean islands and one of the hottest in the world) and other spices, marinated, then grilled nice and slow. The result is a glistening pile of tender chicken parts, heavy with a mild, even heat, kissed with citrus, and (happily) requiring a fair amount of work to suck every bit of its distinct flavor from a multitude of bones.
"We want to bring the cultural aspect of Jamaica to Phoenix one meal at a time," Lyew says. And, indeed, it looks as if this trio of owners is doing just that. Built almost from the ground up, their fast-casual eatery, the Jerk Hut Jamaican Grille, delivers on the island's rich and highly seasoned flavors from a small selection of traditional dishes. And its plentiful portions and wallet-friendly fare make it easy to put it on the must-try list for authentic Jamaican street-side eats in the Valley.
Hailing from the nation's capital, Kingston, the Jerk Hut's three owners, Forrest, Simms, and Lyew, each learned to cook at an early age (Simms recalls making her first meal at 9). Taking cues from Jamaica's history of culinary influences — Spain, Britain, Africa, China, and East India — mixed with the harvests of their homeland, the threesome created the restaurant's six-dish menu with genuine spices sent from California, by friends on the island, or brought back from New York City, the place where the owners met before they moved to Arizona a couple of years ago. Lyew says the modest offerings allow them to concentrate on their strengths and ensure that their pickiest customers, fellow Jamaicans, taste the flavors of the island as if they were there.
Curried dishes have found a place in Jamaican cuisine since Chinese and East Indian influences first made their way to the island in the 16th century. And at the Jerk Hut, this milder form of the more familiar Indian curry is flavored with a mix of Jamaican spices and can be found in two dishes, each with an intense, robust aroma that fills the room.
There is a most-pleasing and colorful made-to-order shrimp, tossed in a yellow curry along with strips of peppers and onions and surrounded by fresh pieces of diced coconut. But even more flavorful is the curried goat. The meat, including the bones, is marinated in a rich mixture of thyme, onions, scallions, ginger, Scotch bonnet peppers, and Jamaican curry. Cooked for hours, along with carrots and potatoes, the mixture is spooned over a choice of white or brown rice with peas (rice and peas are found on nearly every lunch and dinner plate in Jamaica, with the preferred "pea" being a red kidney bean). It's the Jamaican equivalent of comfort food.
If it's your lucky day, you'll be able to score a Jamaican patty, a fried, empanada-style turnover filled with spicy meat. The patty is to Jamaicans what the hamburger is to Americans, which may be why the owners of the Jerk Hut are so particular about their quality and order them in small amounts. Once the word is out, the patties are gone within hours.
There is the oxtail, however — a bony and gelatin-rich affair served not as a stew but slow-roasted with spices and diced potatoes and spooned over rice and peas. And, like most of the Jerk Hut's entrees, a choice of sweet fried plantains or a mix of steamed vegetables can accompany it.
If it is Saturday, there will be soup, which Lyew says is a tradition in Jamaica. A variation of "mannish water" — a spicy soup made from goats' heads and said to be an aphrodisiac — the Jerk Hut's creation may contain chicken or more customary goat meat along with peppers and Jamaican spices. On the island, mannish water is consumed before drinking rum, laying the base before a night of revelry, and Lyew says his soup can be consumed in the same way.
And when it comes to vegetables, the menu's Veggie Chunks sounds uninspiring, but at the Jerk Hut, this stewed dish is anything but. A nod to the vegetarian lifestyle of the island's Rastafarians, Veggie Chunks is served as a variation on the theme every Tuesday. On my visit, chunks of pineapple and small pieces of chicken-tasting soy, served in a brown sauce with a multitude of veggies, put the rich and satisfying stew on the sweet side. Its flavor and texture would please both meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.
Lyew tells me that growing up in Jamaica, he used to go to Elsha Beach, near Kingston, where he would wait for a fishing boat to come to shore, pick a fish from the day's catch, and watch as a child would run it up to a nearby stall to have it cooked. This memory, he says, is the inspiration behind the Jerk Hut's must-try Fish and Festival.
Unlike the restaurant's other ready-to-eat menu items, the fish, a whole red snapper, requires 30 minutes to cook and can be prepared in a multitude of styles — including jerk, curry, and brown stew. But you'll want to order it as escovitch, a style brought by Spanish Jews who arrived in Jamaica during Spain's reign over the island and found on homestyle menus throughout the island. The fish, fried to perfection, is marinated in a vinegary concoction that will leave your tongue tingling. And the festival (the accompanying bread) cuts the acidic taste of the fish with its sweet flavor.
The Jerk Hut's tiny interior, with a kitchen built by the owners and a handful of tables and chairs, seems appropriate given the origins of the restaurant's name. Along with a handful of happy and helpful staff, Lyew, Simms, or Forrest are usually on hand to help first-time guests find a favorite dish or a beverage selection from a cooler filled with Ting and D&G Jamaican sodas or fulfill a request for the not-on-the menu Blue Mountain coffee, made extra dreamy with a splash of coconut milk and brown sugar.
When asked about the future, Lyew says that, along with obtaining a liquor license and adding stew pea soup to the menu, it's all about using one of the most popular cooking methods for making jerk in Jamaica: oil barrel halves fired with charcoal to enhance the meat's spicy, smoky taste.
He shows me a video of the cooking method on his phone and says, "That, I think, is what's next for the Jerk Hut."