Toward summer’s end in Jamaica, the flowers of the roselle plant, a type of hibiscus, begin to fully bloom, displaying a pinwheel of petals in shades of yellow, pink, white, and red. By the time the rainy season has passed and the holidays approach, sorrel, the drink made from the dried petals, assumes a special significance among the island nation’s Christmas revelers. At Khem’s Jerk Shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the house version of the beverage thrums with a gingery kick smoothed out by a good dose of sugar. On a hot-as-hell summer day, a gulp of the $3 crimson brew is surely as gratifying as tearing open a present, and a hell of a lot more refreshing than eggnog.
If you feel like celebrating Christmas in July, the concentrated floral infusion makes a perfect base for boozy punch, an elixir that Khem’s will happily sell you for an extra $5. Either version works wonders on tongues zapped by liberally self-applied doses of hot sauce — sharp, mustardy Susie’s from Antigua, perhaps, or Brooklyn’s own fruitier but no less heat-packing Bacchanal — which you can use to perk up bowls of stew-like red pea soup ($8) overflowing with beef and root vegetables. Although I’d encourage you to save room for at least one of the $5 Caribbean beers on offer, like Jamaica’s dark, malty Dragon Stout or Barbados’s passive but thirst-quenching Banks Caribbean Lager, it was the iced sorrel I found myself reaching for when contending with the powerful spice of chef and co-owner Patrick Khem Brady’s namesake jerk dishes.
For the better part of a decade, Brady, a Jamaican-born French Culinary Institute alum, dazzled his neighbors and New Yorkers of all stripes from the corner of Lewis Avenue and MacDonough Street, manning a barrel smoker with his friend and co-owner Edwin “Brods” Hughes outside the Stephen Decatur Middle School. Lines lengthened as word spread, and they eventually added a pop-up at local watering hole Bed-Vyne. When the duo opened their first brick-and-mortar location in January, they didn’t make their devotees travel far. Khem’s, a cheery corner canteen with a pointedly cool, laid-back chicken-shack vibe, sits at the other end of the block, opposite the middle school’s basketball courts. With the enterprise having expanded its hours beyond just weekends, you can now get your fill of smoky, piquant jerk six days a week, safe from Mother Nature’s whims.
Pops of red and teal accent a dining room dressed in natural woods and plain white walls, an unpretentious backdrop for a crowd that toggles between consciously fashionable young Bed-Stuy residents and steadfast local fans. Everyone seems to wind up nodding their head at some point, whether it’s in sync to the tunes (Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown) or in approval of the $3 sides of plantains. The cans of coconut milk lining the shelves aren’t just for display; they’re also used to make ital stew, a cornerstone of the typically vegetarian Rastafari diet that here mingles squash, potatoes, chickpeas, and enough turmeric to leave the bowl stained rusty orange by the time you’re through. The new digs also give Brady plenty of space to flex his culinary muscles.
Of course, jerk — a centuries-old tradition with origins dating to the cultural exchange between the indigenous Taíno and the African slaves brought to Jamaica by the Spanish — is the place’s raison d’être. Brady’s rendition is marvelous, full of zest and pungent depth thanks in part to marinades and rubs that aren’t so much seasoning as an integral part of the eating experience. Just look at his chicken. I don’t mean this figuratively. Its seriousness is evident from a single glance, the burnished and blackened exterior supporting a riot of coarsely chopped scotch bonnet peppers and chewy crushed allspice berries. Jerk aficionados should likewise take comfort in the knowledge that Khem’s uses pimento logs — hewn from the trees that produce allspice, and for many the only wood worth jerking with — to fuel its grills. The result is near poultry perfection, the slow-cooked meat imbued with a noticeable smokiness amplified by an onslaught of spice.
The birds come in a variety of guises: as jacked chicken wings ($12), in solo portions ($10), or whole ($25), gorgeously spatchcocked and splayed out next to greens (baby bok choy and buttered kale during my visits) and fluffy mounds of aromatic rice and peas. The family-style meal comfortably feeds two to three people. Brady also jerks pork shoulder ($12), doled out in bulky, juicy hunks, and salmon fillets ($15), which stay tender from marinating with thyme, ginger, and whole allspice berries. The potent spice mixtures suffuse everything they coat. And while you might be able to find saucier, more incendiary jerk out there, Khem’s strikes a magnificent, nuanced balance without sacrificing any oomph, and without a lick of fussiness.
One evening, as Peter Tosh mellifluously serenaded both staff and patrons over the stereo and we sipped the last of our sorrel, the typically civil group at my table couldn’t settle on what to order for dessert. Should this happen to you, the right move is to reward yourself with both the $6 slab of fudgy, pudding-like cassava pone and dense raisin-studded bread pudding laced with cinnamon and allspice. As the folks who’ve been coming to this block since before Brady had a roof over his head well know, slow-cooked meals deserve to be savored thus.
Khem’s Jerk Shop
411 Lewis Avenue, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 27, 2017