The 5 best jerk chicken dishes on Chicago’s South Side
Spend time driving around a majority Black neighborhood on the South Side, and you’re bound to run across a jerk chicken shop. Sure, there’s still soul food and barbecue to be found, but jerk is everywhere. In fact, there are more jerk chicken businesses on the South Side than Harold’s Chicken Shacks.
Yet, until a few weeks ago, I knew essentially nothing about them. To correct this, I took a deep dive and tried over 20 different jerk chicken establishments, which led me on a quest for real smoke.
Jerk chicken is a specialty of Jamaica, though you’ll find the dish is popular in a number of Caribbean countries. It features a unique dry rub or marinade made with a bewildering mix of spicy chiles and aromatic spices, including a prominent role played by allspice. Once combined with the rub, the meat is cooked over a bed of charcoal, often with some pimento wood.
Because pimento wood doesn’t grow in abundance around here, the best places in Chicago cook the chicken slowly over charcoal and maybe a little hardwood thrown in. My least favorite places cook the chicken quickly on a gas grill, which makes it taste more like standard grilled chicken, complete with an unappealing lighter fuel aroma, with some jerk seasoning haphazardly brushed on.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was for the line between jerk chicken shop and soul food restaurant to be so blurry. That’s especially true with regard to the side dishes. While most places serve steamed cabbage, a traditional Jamaican dish, almost all also offer classic soul food sides like mac and cheese. A few jerk chicken places even serve spaghetti. Of course, these days you can also order jerk chicken at most soul food restaurants, further confusing the matter.
Because I read it was traditional in Jamaica, I ended up ordering a lot of steamed cabbage. I realize that the dish sounds like the very definition of boring, about one step away from the cabbage soup that poor Charlie Bucket had to ingest before getting a golden ticket, meeting Willy Wonka and gaining access to a lifetime supply of mind-altering candy. But I grew attached to it over the course of my research. The cabbage leaves were usually cooked until they were soft, but still distinct, and they were seasoned aggressively with salt, along with a pinch of chiles and a mix of herbs. Count me a fan.
To easily compare all the different restaurants, I always ordered a jerk chicken dinner, which usually included two sides. Most of the places dished out a heaping portion of red beans and rice and a slice of hard dough bread (which looks suspiciously like Wonder Bread, but is denser and slightly sweeter). Some places poured on a thick gravy atop the red beans and rice, while others didn’t.
This means I missed out on other Jamaican classics like brown stew chicken, oxtail stew and goat curry. That’s not to mention all the jerk fish, goat, pork and shrimp. (Restaurants slather jerk seasoning on just about everything these days.) I also noticed a shocking number of jerk tacos. I’ll leave that for next time.
Here are my top five jerk chicken spots on the South Side (in no particular order).
Jamaican Jerk Villa
As I waited for my food at this spot on 79th Street in Auburn Gresham, a man announced that he had driven all the way from 26th Street for his lunch. The woman next to him declared she’d come from 119th Street. This is another way of saying that people are willing to go the extra mile for Jamaican Jerk Villa, and you should, too. Each bite of juicy chicken ($11 for jerk dark lunch) is imbued with a smokiness that seems to rush up your nostrils and then park there for an hour. The jerk sauce brings the heat, along with a complex spice profile, which enlivens everything it touches. Really solid red beans and rice, a thick gravy and tender steamed cabbage complete this top choice. 737 W. 79th St., 773-651-2240
Just Jerk Cafe
The smoke hangs so heavy in the air at this Chatham stop, it can take a minute before you can peer through the room to spot the large mural of Bob Marley on the wall. This is an excellent sign. Sure enough, smoke haunts the meat here, like it’s giving each bite a heartfelt hug. Just Jerk’s sauce wasn’t the spiciest of all that I tried, but it was the one that best balanced extreme heat with an intriguing allspice profile. It hits like a smack on the tongue, which seems to ricochet endlessly over your taste buds. The chicken ($11.75 for dinner) is served on plump grains of rice mixed with red beans, and topped with a thick, meaty gravy. 119 E. 79th St., 773-846-2232
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Fire Jerk Jamaican Jerk Chicken
The jerk chicken ($8.99 for a dinner) comes out charcoal black, like the meat had been neglected on a searingly hot grill for a good hour too long. Yet, that’s just the color of the intricate spice rub. Underneath, the meat is juicy and absolutely packed with smoke. Honestly, the smoke seems to follow you around for half a day. You can get it with some solid steamed cabbage, along with some impressively sweet fried plantains. 750 W. Garfield Blvd., 773-624-2009
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken
This bustling Chatham stop serves exceptionally moist chicken with a screaming hot jerk sauce. Go with the mixed jerk chicken dinner ($10), and you’ll get an ample amount of red beans and rice, along with two sides. While you could go with steamed cabbage, why not load up with mixed greens and mac and cheese, so you can consider the line between what’s soul food and what’s Jamaican? 553 E. 79th St., 773-224-7766, tropicislandjerkchicken.com
Uncle Joe’s Jerk Chicken
This Hyde Park mainstay bests the local jerk chicken competitors because it slowly cooks its chicken over a bed of charcoal, unlike some that use gas grills. This means that the meat is impressively smoky, while also genuinely spicy from the rub. Go with the lunch special ($9.50) and you’ll get a quarter chicken served atop a mound of red beans and rice with fried plantains, steamed cabbage and hard dough bread. 1461 E. Hyde Park Blvd., 773-241-5550, unclejoesjerk.com
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