Somewhat long ago and reasonably far away, there was Jamaica. I’ll spare you the details of the couples-only, all-inclusive tourist resort trip, but it’s sufficient to know that I complained my way onto an automobile island tour. Traveling from Ocho Rios to Kingston and back, we sampled a culture closer to the real thing — stopping at ramshackle jerk joints along the coast and the roadside stands serving fish “tea” and “mannish” goat soup in the Blue Mountains. But the sounds, flavors and images linger to this day.
It would be impossible for any single restaurant outside of the Caribbean to recreate that experience — its romance has grown with time. Aromatic wood from the allspice-producing pimento tree is indispensable to the Jamaican jerk-cooking process, and I doubt most mainlanders cook in a pit covered by a warped sheet of corrugated tin roofing. But San Antonio’s own Jerk Shack gives it a good go, regardless. Grab a bottle of frosty ginger beer and let the breezes blowing through the covered outdoor patio lull you into a reggae reverie. The bouncy, toe-tapping house soundtrack already gets you half way there.
Keep the vibe going with an order of jerk chicken to start; it’s the test of the true thing. Jamaican-born chef Lattoia Massey, a Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio grad, has finely-tuned her rub to make this moist and herby bird sing like a canary. Allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg join forces with thyme, scallion and a bite, assumedly from Scotch bonnet chilies, to give the coating its clout. BYO Red Stripe, however, if you need a drink that can duke it out with the jerk.
The restaurant offers tacos, but the house jerk chicken takes another form here: winged and breaded. Meaty, ample wings are fried and served in a burnished coating where the main spices reside. You won’t find tongue-tingling heat here, but you can amp up the experience with the two sauces — one spicy-sweet and BBQ-like, the other smoky and herby.
There is an around-the-world tradition of using dough-wrapped pockets. Jamaica’s are “patties”, which are filled with beef and usually spiced with curry powder and Scotch bonnets. They’re savory, with an appealing and tender crust. But spicy? At Jerk Shack, not so much.
Yet trigger warnings about spice abound on Massey’s menu. Braised oxtails, for example, are served in “spicy brown sauce,” but the heat is more of a sneaky undertow than the main event. The cross-cut segments of tail, in a syrupy glaze, are blissfully tender; broad beans, almost meaty in their own right, are a mellow counterpoint, along with traditional rice with pigeon peas. Like many orders, a lightly sautéed cabbage and carrot complete the $18 plate. Yes, $18 seems pretty expensive for a dish served on plastic and decorated with the southern view of a steer headed north. But maybe that’s not the point: If we’re paying for skill, the cost of the protein shouldn’t matter, the setting and service even less. Apparently, Massey’s many fans agree.
To push the point even more, diners are likely to think little of paying that same $18 for a shrimp dish in coconut curry sauce — shrimp being fancier than tail in the minds of most — but I’d take the tail any day. Yes, the shrimp are beautifully sautéed, and colorful pieces of blistered bell pepper contrast handsomely with the brilliant yellow sauce. But about that sauce. There’s a little heat from rings of habanero, but it otherwise tastes almost entirely of curry powder, with an emphasis on turmeric, while the coconut milk seems to have little mellowing effect.
An object lesson in ingredients working well together is found in one of the menu’s simplest offerings, the pineapple habanero slaw. This dish has it all: fruit, heat, crunch from the cabbage — as there is no goat on the menu — and it’s essential to a Jerk Shack order. Pair it with a half-pound of jerk chicken, and take it home to serve on a real plate if plastic offends you. Or just eat it there and hope for a cooling breeze. No trip to Jamaica required. (Word to the wise: arrive early. Many dishes sell out.)
The Jerk Shack
117 Matyear St., (210) 776-7780, Tues-Sat, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Credit cards
Best bets: Jerk chicken, braised oxtails, jerk-fried chicken wings, pineapple habanero
Lattoia Massey, a Jamaican-born, CIA-trained chef has taken Caribbean classics and cheffed them up only a little for service at her open-air “shack” on the city’s West Side. Simple but essential jerk chicken may be the star — it’s herby and subtly spicy. Braised oxtail is another classic only lightly adapted. You won’t find it elsewhere, so go for it despite the price. Battered chicken wings are less obligatory, but they work regardless. Patties of dough-wrapped ground beef are worth trying, if less spicy than expected. A simple slaw with pineapple, cabbage and habanero chilies sings. BYOB or snag a ginger beer to ease it all on down.
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