SANTA CRUZ >> It’s always exciting when a nouvelle cuisine expands the local culinary scene. Although some restaurants in this area offer Caribbean-style dishes, The Jerk House is billed as the first authentic Jamaican restaurant in Santa Cruz County.
My friend Chelsea has traveled the world, making friends everywhere she goes, including Jamaica; she seemed like the perfect companion for my first visit to The Jerk House. Don’t blink when you pass by or you’ll miss this little restaurant, nestled comfortably between El Chino and Elaine’s dance studio on Soquel Drive. Parking in front is limited but spaces are available behind the building.
The Jerk House earns points for the obvious effort and energy put into its decor, starting with the ingenious bolted-plank tables on the outdoor patio and the raw wood fencing. A brightly colored rug featuring the restaurant’s logo drew us inside, where we were greeted by a striking mural of a woman’s face.
Below the beauty of the island was the focal point of the restaurant, a wooden boat remodeled to serve as a counter and bar. Everywhere I looked, elements added to the ambience of the quay: ropes and pulleys, old wooden barrels, a false slum facade topped by a corrugated iron roof. Photographs of local and Jamaican landscapes – suspended from wooden oars by yellow dock chains – hung on the artistically weathered walls. The effect was colorful and original, Cannery Row meets Kingston Town.
We sat on the bench in front of the facade of the slum, where geometrically arranged planks were painted in the green-yellow-black of the Jamaican flag. Behind the wall, the tiny open kitchen roared with the sounds of pots and silverware clashing.
“It’s not the quietest place to sit,” I commented. “It actually looks like they’re” having fun making noise. “
I think Bob Marley’s music is playing but I can’t really hear it, âChelsea said.
The menu was divided into small platters, sides, and large platters, and listed intriguing items such as oxtail stew, goat curry, Jamaican patty, brown snapper stew, and the festival. Even the most familiar dishes had a Caribbean twist: the Jerk Burger (served with Jerk Fries) was served with grilled pineapple and a coriander-lime sauce.
Our cordial waiter, Aaron (co-owner Aaron Bistrin), asked if we had any questions. He explained that “Festival” meant Jamaican fried dumplings resembling donuts, while “Patties” were pastries filled with meat or vegetables. Bistrin’s enthusiasm was infectious as he talked about the food, including the oxtail stew, which he said reminded him of his mother’s breast.
We started with a mango salad ($ 4), adding jerk chicken (small, $ 7), goat cheese curry (small, $ 8) and oxtail stew ($ 18). And of course we had to order Jamaican Red Stripe beer ($ 4), a light and simple lager that complemented the food. The Jerk House has half a dozen interesting bottled beers and has several local microbreweries on tap including Discretion Brewing, Santa Cruz Ale Works, and New Bohemia Brewing Co. And although only four wines were listed, these were the ones. which I would order with pleasure.
Aaron brought our dishes in quick succession, presented on brightly colored Fiestaware-style plates: the refreshing salad of diced cucumber, mango and jicama looked especially pretty against its dark green oval dish. This unusual salad was light, fresh and crunchy; I had asked Aaron to leave out the usual raw onions, which would have added another sharp flavor note.
Our main courses were each accompanied by the same three sides: “Rice and peas”, seasoned rice mixed with pieces of red beans and a touch of coconut milk; delicious slices of sweet, sweet and caramelized plantain; and “salad”. I expected some greens, but instead this tasty Jamaican coleslaw featured red and green cabbage, carrots and zucchini, sautÃ©ed together in a little too much oil. We enjoyed all three side dishes and Chelsea found that the combination of the mango salad and the rice created an appealing mix of tastes and textures.
Our goat cheese, simmered with onion, thyme and garlic, was lean and tender. And the lightly spicy curry sauce enhanced rather than smothered the distinctive, delicate flavor of the meat.
The oxtail stew even looked filling. Its rich, dark sauce was filled with multi-colored peppers and onions, and chunks of beef clung to the thin slices of round bone. I enjoyed this hearty and tasty dish – but not as much as Chelsea, who happily gnawed at the bones she held in her fingers.
“I’m sucking on the marrow,” she said, smiling. “It’s not a first date food type – but I love it.”
Although I would order all three courses again, the iconic Jerk Chicken won my first vote. Not only was the meat extremely juicy and tender, the flavor was overdriven with the exceptional homemade jerk sauce. Tangy, slightly sweet and buzzing with habanero spice, this sauce was so good I begged to bring some home for my leftovers. (The versatile sauce was also good on the rice.)
“It tastes like the food I ate in Jamaica,” Chelsea commented. “Only better.”
There is a Jamaican phrase, âEvery ting criss,â which means âeverythingâ is good. âThe Jerk House created a little Caribbean slice on Soquel Drive. The atmosphere was relaxed but lively (maybe a bit too much). lively if you sit by the kitchen), the food was intriguing and satisfying, and the service was warm and responsive.
Would come back for >> Top notch Jerk Chicken
Don’t Miss >> Rarely seen menu items like oxtail stew, jerk shrimp, goat curry – and succulent caramelized plantain.
Great setting >> Co-owners Aaron Bistrin and Tim Buonagurio did an impressive job decorating the restaurant as a quayside meeting place.
Intimidating Decibels >> The lively atmosphere at The Jerk House was fun but a bit loud; quieter tables are tucked away at the back.
Heavenly Heat >> For a condiment experience that kicks the pants off, try the House Jerk Sauce.
Ann Parker welcomes comments, feedback and suggestions on area restaurant reviews. Contact her at [email protected]