The quest for the city’s best jerk chicken moves forward. Even though Baychester’s Jerk Center, Flatbush’s Danny and Pepper, and Edenwald’s Caribbean Taste, Inc., have been profusely praised in these pages, that doesn’t mean we can give up. The criteria stand: top-notch poultry cooked over hardwood charcoal in a hinged 60-gallon drum, a jerk coating that imparts a serious burn and contains discernible amounts of allspice, and an accompanying sauce to intensify and lubricate. Traditionally, jerk sauces have been mainly vinegar and Scotch bonnet peppers, but in the last few years local renditions have swerved in the direction of American barbecue sauce. Many actually incorporate it.
In pursuit of jerk I’d been going to a favorite spot on St. Johns Place, that sunny and imperially wide Crown Heights thoroughfare. Tony’s Jerk Chicken was a lively corner carryout with a menu that ran from superior jerk chicken to dirt-cheap callaloo sandwiches, an invention unique to the city in my experience. An extra kick was provided by the premeditation required to approach the place. The shuttered drugstore across the street is prey to one of the city’s most spectacular pigeon infestations; dodging drops of organic whiteout as I dashed past rank upon rank of winged rats taking flight, I felt like an extra in The Birds. But when I returned a few days ago for a final visit, Tony’s had joined the drugstore in the permanently closed category. Damn!
Just a couple of blocks west, luckily, an honest-looking hand-lettered sign stands proudly atop St. John’s Café and Restaurant, where the jerk chicken, smoke-ringed and tender, is the equal of Tony’s, with a decent sauce of the sweet and thick variety. Decorated only with a framed photo of Saint Marley tossing his dreads with a Les Paul around his neck, this friendly Jamaican spot boasts a handful of comfortable tables in a cozy white interior, and one of the best goat rotis in town. There’s no shredded cabbage or other filler of any sort in this Caribbean-style sandwich, wrapped in an Indian flatbread and crammed with tons of mellow, flavorful curried goat. Everything on the menu is less than $10, and everything often includes curried chicken, oxtails, cow feet, and—a tip of the hat to the many locals with roots in the Carolinas—fried chicken.
Visit St. John’s before it disappears. Or before the pigeons find it.
Roll down the steep escarpment from the Cloisters, and you’ll find yourself at EL MUNDO FRIED CHICKEN (4456 Broadway, 567-9325). A neon sign in the window burns, “Fritura de Toda Clase,” and they’re not kidding. Chicharrón de cerdo are stunning pork-roast arcs, each piece artfully layered with paprika-dusted crispy skin, not-quite-rendered fat, and meat of concentrated flavor and intriguing density. The French would call it confit. This Dominican lunch counter also makes good chicken, either fried or rotisseried. The more adventuresome will order sancocho, a rich chicken stew thickened with pumpkin and sporting all sorts of vegetables.
One guy in the back of the KATI ROLL COMPANY (99 MacDougal Street, 420-6517) warms flatbreads, and another grills chicken and beef brochettes, while a gal at the front counter is assembling these raw materials into katis ($2.50 to $5)—tubular Indian concoctions that are Calcutta’s favorite street food. She places the brochette (vegetarian potato and paneer fillings are also available) into a paratha, adds chopped hot peppers and onions, squeezes lime, adds a shake of masala, and slaps on some chutney, then rolls the whole thing into a sandwich. To enrich this treat, you can also have it “unda”: The flatbread is heated with a coating of scrambled egg, rendering the kati richer and more proteinaceous.