King Jerk in Opa-locka: "Jerk Isn't All About the Spice"

King Jerk's jerk chicken.
King Jerk's jerk chicken.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson

Oratio Garrell has been making jerk since he was 11. As a kid in Montego Bay, Jamaica, he worked for his cousin Ayende, slathering whole birds with the spicy, piquant paste.

"I needed summer money," says Garrell, who's now 30 and goes by the nickname Jay. "He did it all himself, taught me how to hustle."

He moved to Miami in 2007 and set up a tent on the corner of NW 139th Street and Seventh Avenue to sell jerk pork, chicken, and fish. The hope was to move into a brick-and-mortar space, but when that proved too expensive, he opted for a truck.

After dropping about $65,000 to outfit a bright-red trailer with a huge double-decker grill, Garrell debuted King Jerk in 2012. The trailer spends most of its time at a gas station on Opa-locka Boulevard near I-95.

Here, the chicken ($7), served with rotating sides like steamed cabbage and mac 'n' cheese, reigns supreme. It starts by mixing a classic blend of Scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, thyme, scallions, allspice, brown sugar, and vinegar. He marinates at least 100 pounds of whole chickens in the mix, portions them out, and — strangely enough — freezes them for the week.

"It makes it a lot easier on me and helps the skin and meat absorb all those flavors," he says.

When it's time to grill, he sets a mountain of oak charcoal alight, bringing it to a temperature he won't share.

"It's got to be just right, not too hot," he says. The birds then spend about 45 minutes over the fire. The process is a hybrid of standard grilling and low-and-slow barbecue. The resulting meat is juicy, with a slight pink tinge, reminiscent of the smoke ring found in the best barbecue. The skin takes on a slight crisp but is still thick with the seasoning, which isn't too spicy and doubles as a kind of dipping sauce.

"Jerk isn't all about the spice," Garrell says. "It's the other spices, the vinegar, that make it."

King Jerk is located at the Chevron gas station at 13500 NW Seventh Ave. Saturdays and Sundays from noon to midnight.

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