A Good Kinda Jerk
It was while sitting at home, watching the presidential debate on TV, that I suddenly found myself seized by an insatiable craving for jerk chicken. Go figure. So I headed to Jerk Machine, located in North Miami (other locations include Sunrise, Opa-locka, Coral Springs, and Hollywood), a place whose motto is, “We don't joke, we jerk!” And jerk they do -- specifically chicken, pork, shrimp, crab, and fish (usually tilapia).
Jerk is derived from the patois word juk, meaning to poke with a sharp implement, which is just what's done to the meat so that a fiery paste of Scotch bonnet chilies, scallions, wild cinnamon, allspice berries, thyme, nutmeg, ginger, brown sugar, and a whole lot of other ingredients is more readily absorbed. Boston Beach in northern Jamaica is home of the jerk, the streets there perfumed with plumes of pungent smoke emanating from open pits where chicken and pork darken over smoldering green pimiento (allspice) twigs. Jerk refers to this centuries-old method of Jamaican barbecue, to the spice mix, and to the cooked product, which used to be limited to wild boar.
Jerk Machine originated in Jamaica, but it didn't bring much island ambiance with it in its move north: The décor is strictly fast food, a bright, dispassionate take-out place with tables and booths and a counter at which you order your meal. For obvious reasons Jerk Machine also left the smoke pit behind, and the heat's been turned down a notch as well. Still, a pleasant burning sensation will stimulate the back of your mouth a few seconds after taking that first bite of jerk chicken, half a grilled bird chopped into pieces with the quick herky-jerky motion of a counter person's cleaver. Same goes for the tender cubes of marinated slow-cooked pork. Both dishes offer enough kick for most diners, but serious heat-seekers might want to douse their meal with the jar of hot jerk sauce that sits by the cash register.
Opt for oxtail if you'd rather not play with fire, or ruggedly flavorful chunks of goat in an invigorating but not hot curry sauce, or brown stewed chicken with a straightforward and savory gravy gracing the wings, thighs, and breasts. All main courses come with white rice or delectable cinnamon-enhanced rice and peas, as well as a choice of plantains, fritters, dumplings (none of which benefit from sitting under heat lamps on the counter line), a mostly lettuce salad, or vibrantly steamed cabbage and carrots, which are more conducive to steam-table service and were, in fact, delicious. Jamaican beef patties were tasty, too, and while I didn't try soup of the day (cow's foot), we can assume it's better than it sounds.
No wine or brews served here, but sweet-scented ginger beer convincingly cuts through the food's assertive seasonings. A jerked palate also dictates a staunch dessert, and the intense rum-soaked fruit cake fits that bill nicely.
Speaking of bills, the one you get at Jerk Machine will be quite affordable. Small dinners cost $5.65, large dinners are $6.99, with fish and shellfish items a bit pricier. Now that's the sort of pork-barrel spending I could vote for.
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