At 8:00 p.m. on a January night, the stretch of Utica Ave. between Foster and Clarendon is a bleak row of auto repair shops, huge, rusted banners hanging over shuttered garages and the occasional fading light fixture. How different it looks at 8:00 a.m., I have no way of telling – this is my first time past the threshold of East Flatbush.
At the corner of Foster and Utica is the reason I’m here: an oil drum perched on the sidewalk, smoke billowing through its cracks and out into thirty degrees of Brooklyn winter.
When Hagan Blount, The Wandering Foodie, sent out calls for food writers to help him experience what it is to eat in New York City, I jumped at the chance to drag anyone out of Manhattan for some authentic Jamaican jerk, the likes of which I hadn’t eaten since December, 2006. Hagan’s done some brilliant work in gathering the city’s food bloggers to share meals and insights in his own brand of moveable feast, not least of all convincing some of the city’s most notable restaurants to comp entire meals in exchange for the chance to be a part of the project.
I myself give very little of a shit about scoring free expensive atmosphere, so my first suggestion to the man was a trip to Utica Ave. True to form, he accepted the chance to wander his way to flavor with gusto. Stoked by the glowing words of the Times and The Porkchop Express, we walked into Boston Jerk City and paid straight cash for the basics.
After ordering through glass windows, we noticed an open doorway that seemingly led into a separate restaurant. To our fortune, what we had found was actually Boston Jerk City’s Enter the Duchy dining room, in full reflective resplendence. We threw our styrofoam boxes onto the table and began to eat.
Jerk pork dinner, served with salad, plantains and a trough of rice and beans, was our first choice, with a double serving of dark-meat-only jerk chicken serving as course #2. As I’d read, jerk pork was a bit of a letdown, juicy, crunchy and smoky in some spots but dry, salty and overcooked in others. Slathering extra jerk sauce onto the hunks of smoked roast helped a bit, but this meat could have used a bit of time in a separate, less intensely heated oil drum.
Boston Jerk City’s chicken, on the other hand, was flawless. Most Americans tend to ruin chicken whenever they put it into a smoker – even the vaunted barbecued chicken at Jimmy’s in North Carolina comes off as bland. Hand your bird to a skilled jerk man, though, and you’ll get what is sold in Flatbush for next to nothing: barely charred, delectably crisp skin with a deep red hue, a smoke ring that effectively cures the entire surface layer of every piece, and a complex, sweet-and-savory spice that altogether remind whoever’s lucky enough to be eating this meat that long before barbecue was an Kansas City icon, it was a West Indies masterpiece.
While I didn’t get to try goat curry, festival pastry, homemade carrot juice or any other enticing menu choices on this first trip with Hagan, I did reach immediately for the most curious item in the shop: Baba Roots Herbal Drink. I pulled the bottle out of the fridge and decided to buy it before I even realized that this was some kind of carbonated tonic, not a type of hot sauce. Easily taking the place of Jamaican ginger beer (which was absent from Boston Jerk City’s fridge at the time), Baba Roots tasted something like the bitters of soft drinks. It had a nice, sour bite, ginger-and-sarsaparilla spice, dark sweetness and pronounced medicinal quality that goes down well after a plate of jerk.
Taking a look at the 93 Plates lineup and looking at the MTA map on the 4 train back home, we pointed out some neighborhoods we’d like to explore and commiserated over how difficult it is to get friends to make this kind of trip for a $10 plate of chicken. This is, after all, why I’m in New York, and my hats are off to all of the wandering eaters who don’t need a Times piece and a partner in crime to really dig into the outer boroughs for a twenty minute meal.
May we all find our smoking oil drums in good health when we make it to the dinner counter.
Boston Jerk City
1344 Utica Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11203