Jamaica Grill: Island Chow in Oak Park

Jerk Chicken, Ackee and Salt Fish, Callaloo and Ting

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By David Hammond

I'm talking to Tony Baxter at Jamaica Grill as he finishes grilling my jerk chicken. I mention to Baxter that Carolyn and I spent our honeymoon in Jamaica over thirty years ago. "It was better in Jamaica then," Baxter said. "Now, too many tourists, and they're building highways everywhere."

Having piloted a small car around the eastern edge of the island from Montego Bay to Negril, along rutted roads, in the dead of night, trying my best to avoid hitting the random goat, I, for one, am glad that highways have been improved. Still, I take Tony's point. Jamaica, thanks in large part to many tourists, has improved its infrastructure, though perhaps it's lost some of its charm.

I was very glad to see that the Jamaica Grill menu carries items I hadn't seen since I was in Jamaica in the 80s, for instance: 

  • Ackee and Salt Fish. Ackee is a type of fruit, yielding a small, beige berry that was first transported from Ghana (along with many Ghanaians) as part of the slave trade; it was actually named after the Akan, a tribe in Ghana. The ackee is boiled and served with salted fish, usually cod, which was one of the preferred foods carried aboard many ships in the years before refrigeration: the salting kept the fish edible for a very long time.
  • Callaloo. Much like the greens beloved by many in the southern United States, callaloo (a kind of amaranth) is a heavy dark leaf that can be boiled and seasoned to accompany the main protein. At Jamaica Grill, callaloo comes as a side.
  • Ting. This is a soft drink, grapefruit flavored and a good accompaniment to the Jamaican food.

Jamaica Grill also serves oxtail, which you can add a tail to your order for $2.50 (it's cow/steer tail, of course, and not from an ox, as virtually no oxtails are to be found these days, oxen having been pretty much put out existence by automated farm equipment).

I dug the jerk chicken quite a lot. I got the mixed light and dark meat, which Baxter told me is what most people order when they get chicken. It had a nice spice to it, and although the bird was marinated overnight, most of the spice stayed on the skin (so if you're spice averse, it's very easy to remove).

"I don't like breast meat so much," said Baxter, and I'm with him. It's boring. The jerk seasoning helps make the breast more interesting, but for those who need an extra blast of heat to get through lunch, Baxter has house-made hot sauce that ups the capsaicin ante without being unbearably caustic.

My order of jerk chicken, half a bird, came with beans and rice, boiled cabbage, and Jamaican bread, which Baxter accurately described as "doughier," which holds together under the weight and heat of the other foods in the carry-out order.

Parking is abundant around Jamaica Grill, even at lunchtime, but they also deliver. You can order using Grubhub, but those orders take a bite out of a restaurant's profitability, and for a small place, losing a few bucks per order is a big deal. If you can, either call to have your order delivered or drop by and pick it up yourself. This is strictly a carry-out operation, so unless you want to dine al trunko (using your car as a table, which I've done many times), you'll have to bring your jerk chicken home with you.



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Reader Comments

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David Hammond  

Posted: September 16th, 2016 9:32 AM

Jamaica Grill is a smaller operation, so I'd recommend calling ahead if you're in the mood for a specific menu item (like oxtail) other than jerk chicken (which I'm pretty sure is always available), just to make sure they have it that day.

Maureen Blair Baxter from Lithonia,Ga  

Posted: September 15th, 2016 8:14 PM

Awesome article..I have had the food best taste of Jamaica in Chicago..Worth going!!

Renee Geweniger Zoltowski  

Posted: September 15th, 2016 3:00 PM

I cannot wait to go try it. I love Jerk chicken. My husband loves oxtail.

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