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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

True Jamaican Jerk

Irie’s authentic flavor

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“Jamaican jerk” is a term that often appears on menus, including those of large chain restaurants, but usually it strays from its Caribbean origin. In Jamaica the meat—usually pork, chicken or shrimp—is coated with a paste of herbs and spices with the aromatic scent of allspice and the subdued fire of Scotch bonnet pepper, a cousin of the Mexican habaero. It is slow-cooked over a wood fire to add a smoky flavor, and in the case of chicken, the meat is chopped and served with the bone in. The American version of Jamaican jerk chicken has devolved to a grilled boneless chicken breast topped with a bit of commercial jerk seasoning sauce—a far cry from the flavor of true jerk. Locally you will find plenty of the bland variety, but one restaurant remains remarkably true to the original spirit: Irie Palace.

 There is nothing fancy about this restaurant, though it is comfortable enough. Located in a simple storefront with tall glass windows, Irie Palace features basic seating and tables that offer a little privacy thanks to wood latticework partitions. The bar is well stocked with Red Stripe beer and plays music that ranges from reggae to hip-hop. Colorful tablecloths and imitation palm trees add a tropical flair.

 The menu and daily specials will be found on a grease board. You place your order at the cash register, but from then on you receive full table service.

 Don’t set your heart on any single item, as it may not always be available. But you are nearly guaranteed to find jerk chicken ($7.99-$9.99) served chopped and with the bone in. This succulent version features a crust with the proper flavors of allspice (in Jamaica, it is called “pimento”) and just a hint of Scotch bonnet. The chicken, served over lettuce, comes with a small dish of a moderately hot pepper sauce that is strictly optional. There is a side plate of vegetables—cabbage, bell pepper and carrot—topped with slices of sweet fried plantain. A side bowl of rice, either steamed white or rice with red beans, is also included. The latter has a pinkish hue and the sweet flavor of coconut milk.

 Unfortunately there is no jerk pork, but there is jerk shrimp ($11.99). These are eight jumbo shrimp with a jerk seasoning that is more of a sauce and includes mild bell pepper, tomato and onion. This jerk has far more fire than the chicken. It is a bit salty—however, it’s a must for those who crave very spicy food. It will likely take longer to prepare than the chicken, but it is well worth the wait.

 Other items can be milder. Jamaican curry powder differs from Indian in that allspice is one of the main ingredients. Here you will find it used with chicken, shrimp and goat. It is especially well suited to the goat ($9.99-$11.99), as it counteracts the gamy flavor of the meat. Again it is served with the bone and can be a bit fatty, but that is the price of authenticity.

 It is also a pleasure to find oxtails ($7.99-9.99) on this menu. These are even bonier than the goat and the meat borders on gelatinous; even still, it is worth every bit of effort to extract it from the bone. The sauce is the color of the one accompanying the jerk shrimp, but there is no hot pepper here. It has a rich brown tone and bits of carrot and bell pepper that show telltale signs of slow cooking. When available, this will arrive in a few short minutes.

 Carry-outs are common, and most of these items will reheat very well. For a light snack, try the Jamaican patties ($2), small pastry pies filled with chicken, beef or vegetable. The flavor of curry is intense.

 A half-dozen visits should be ample to sample this small menu, but the Irie Palace will make you want to return time and again. The flavors here are very rich and truly Jamaican.

Irie Palace, 7506 W. Appleton Ave., (414) 461-8203, $-$$, Credit Cards: MC, VS, DS, Smoke-Free, Handicap Access: Yes

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