"Jerk wouldn't be jerk without the heat."
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken
419 E. 79th Street, Chicago IL 60619 (map); 773-224-7766
The Short Order: Juicy jerk chicken, laced with spices.
Want Fries with That? No, but you'll definitely get some rice and red beans.
Want Ketchup? Just some mind-numbing hot sauce.
I knew Tropic Island Jerk Chicken would be good the moment I walked inside. It's not like you can fake this kind of authenticity. Who needs any coherent design theme, level floors, or more than one rickety table that nobody uses? I mean, the owner was speaking in what sounded like a Jamaican accent, but that wasn't even necessary.
All I needed was the unmistakable sent of allspice and smoke that hits your nose and won't let go. Jerk chicken is one of Jamaica's most famous food exports, and in this southside Chicago neighborhood of Chatham, it's found a home as a take-out dish. And I'll say right off the bat: I am insanely jealous that I can't get this in my neighborhood. Let me count the ways.
Jerk chicken is fairly time-consuming to make. The name "jerk" actually refers to the rub placed on the chicken before it ever hits the grill. It usually contains a combination of black pepper, bay leaf, onion, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, and, of course, lots of allspice. It needs to hang out with the rub for a while—at least 12 hours and usually closer to a day.
It's then slowly cooked on a grill with ample amounts of smoke. The rub turns the skin a black shade, which I confused as burnt the first time I ate it. Instead, the color just signals a ready-to-eat crispiness. The meat inside is ghostly white. The delicious combo makes for an odd combination of monochromatic cuisine.
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken's namesake dish is nearly flawless. It's still plenty juicy—like the best roast chicken you can imagine—but each bite is rich with spices.
Of course, jerk wouldn't be jerk without the heat, and this is no time for Tabasco or a couple of jalapeños. It's all about the Scotch bonnets, a close relative of the habanero, which provides a masochistic wallop of heat. Tropic Island, probably for this reason, leaves it off the chicken, including it as a side for people to choose their own punishment. Of course, I just poured the whole container on the chicken the moment I could. (I cried all the way home.)
The jerk chicken comes with two side orders, but it's more complicated than just deciding between fries and mashed potatoes. They have a whole buffet of items, including corn, plantains, greens, mac and cheese, potatoes, yams, and green beans. The green beans were tender with a nice meaty backbone, but the yams were even better. Instead of overly sweet and syrupy, these had a great hit of cinnamon.
The meal also comes with a huge serving of rice and red beans covered in gravy, and a slice of white bread. It's a massive amount of food for roughly $10—more than enough for two hungry people. Not a bad deal at all.
I got my jerk chicken meal to go along with a bottle of Kola champagne, a decent (non-alcoholic) Jamaican soda.
To contain the massive amount of food, the container is wrapped up tight in plastic with a little tub of hot sauce on top.
When I opened the package, I immediately worried about overflow. I mean, how were we supposed to eat this in the car? It was an adventure to say the least. My wife and I also had our over-eager dog in the backseat who looked ready to make off with a drumstick if we gave him a second. So we didn't. We stuffed ourselves silly on some of the best jerk chicken I've had in the city.
The next time I go, I might try to eat inside. There's a large sign in the restaurant advertising a new space they'll be moving to soon. If that's true, I'll happily eat at Tropic Island Jerk Chicken with a real knife and fork, but for now I'm perfectly content in my car.
"But don't worry," they told me. "The number will be the same. So you can get your order to-go."