Jamaican food is hard to come by in the Valley, and whipping up an authentic Jerk Chicken dish at home can be darn near impossible. In any case, you do not "whip up" a dish that is known for having a laundry list of ingredients and should ideally be marinated days in advance.
When the craving hit for a comforting plate of Caribbean fare, we decided to check out these two spots to see who takes the prize for jerk chicken with all the fixins'.
In This Corner: Jerk Hut Jamaican Grille
The Setting: Located just west of central Phoenix, Jerk Hut gives a voice to authentic Jamaican dishes like jerk chicken and goat curry, all served with the requisite rice and peas, cabbage slaw and fried plantains. The long and narrow restaurant has elbow-to-elbow counter seating; takeout boxes and plastic utensils replace traditional dine-in plates and cutlery.
The Good: From the moment we ordered the Jerk Chicken at Jerk Hut Jamaican Grille, all pretenses of clean and orderly eating were thrown out the door. In a few swift motions, the waitress grabbed a leg of jerk chicken, set it on a cutting board, and proceeded to hack through meat and bone until the single leg rested in four individual pieces. It was safe to say we could eat with our hands. The dish is offered with either white or dark meat, but we went for the dark. We were satisfied to find the meat remained moist, with a nicely burnt crust on the exterior. The spice level was moderate --perhaps too mild for extreme heat lovers, but more than enough for the recreational heat seeker. From the recommendation of our waitress, we topped our rice and peas ("peas" being kidney beans) with oxtail gravy. This gravy added a mellow and savory flavor to the otherwise underwhelming rice side.
The Bad: Given its long preparation time, all the food was pre-prepared and ready to dish up at Jerk Hut. Unfortunately, this meant the chicken and sides of rice and peas and fried plantains were served only slightly above room temperature. The jerk chicken had a lot of smaller bone fragments that we had to maneuver around with each bite. Though the oxtail gravy helped to moisten the rice and peas, the rice was still drier than we would have liked.
In This Corner: Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine
The Setting: Located in the Chandler Mercado Shopping Center, with a can't-miss-it-if-you-closed-your-eyes sign, Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine dishes up home cooked Jamaican comfort foods while Bob Marley blares from the corner speaker. Food orders are placed at the counter and service is quick and relaxed, like going to a friend's house -- a friend with a taste for mismatched Jamaican memorabilia and some pretty great fried plantains.
The Good: The Jerk Chicken dish at Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine managed to straddle the line between too spicy and not spicy enough for a heat that was just right. The spice came on slowly, and by the last bite our lips were pleasantly warmed by the chilies and spices in the jerk seasoning and sauce. The meat was very moist and served warm alongside a generous portion of rice and peas and cabbage slaw. All mixed together, each bite elicited a very home cooked nostalgia and the generous portion size made a nap the only acceptable activity afterwards. Ordering a side of the perfectly cooked fried plantains probably did not help the cause, but it was certainly not regretted.
The Bad: Just like Jerk Hut, Hot Pot's chicken required quite a bit of finger eating to get around the bones. The rice and peas could have used a hint more flavor, or some sort of sauce, just to help make forkful after forkful a little less monotonous.
The Winner: For both the tenderness and heat of the meat, the jerk chicken at Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine lurched its way to first. As an aside, at both establishments the service deserves to be recognized for being so warm and genuine, leaving us feeling at home.