Bring on the Jerk

Finally, the Caribbean stakes a spot in Seattle thanks to Jerk Shack.

Here in Seattle, a trip to the Caribbean isn’t exactly the easiest thing to pull off, which is unfortunate given the islands’ stunning beaches—and delicious food. As a former travel writer whose beat was covering those far-flung spits of land, leaving their proximity was one of the things I fretted over most when moving here from the East Coast in 2011. No more quick flights to Florida, followed by a puddle-jumper to a place that served jerk chicken, plantains, tropical fish, and soupy, savory black beans. I occasionally found solace in Cuban dishes at Mojitos off Lake City Way, but their focus is more on South America. Jerk, specifically, is not represented. So, you can imagine my enthusiasm when Trey Lamont’s Jerk Shack opened recently in the Belltown space formerly occupied by The Innkeeper.

Lamont, who boasts bona fide Caribbean heritage (Jamaican and Trinidadian!), grew up in the Seattle hotel and restaurant industry, spending time working and cooking at The Sheraton and Wild Ginger. Given this, it was impossible not to head in for dinner with high expectations. When I arrived, the bright yellow window casements and flower boxes stood out on the rainy Friday night, and the feeling of being transported to cerulean waters and white sand beaches quickly unfurled.

I brought reinforcements in the way of a husband and two friends because Caribbean cuisine is truly about feasting and sharing—and even though we ordered way more food than necessary, the bill barely tipped over $150 for four people (drinks and dessert included). I was thrilled to see that the menu really did focus on jerk-spiced foods—whether chicken, pork, seafood, or even mac and cheese.

The jerk-smoked ribs, slow-cooked for seven hours and finished on the grill, brought that instant assault of allspice and Scotch bonnet pepper that’s essential to the rub. It had acceptable heat, though wasn’t as spicy as what I’ve experienced in the Caribbean. I’m not holding that against the restaurant, though, because your average American diner can’t handle that insane level of Scoville units. Besides, there’s a benefit to not blasting it; all the other spices—cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, thyme, and ginger—get a chance to weigh in too. Plus, if you really want spicy, the “oh boi” habanero pepper sauce served on the side will finish the job for you. Dip from that and immediately into the “papa mayo” garlic aioli and you’ve got yourself a flavor fête. Besides the seasonings, the meat from these smallish-sized ribs was succulent and ready to fall off the bone in a breath.

The jerk fried chicken, battered in jerk spices with no flour, wasn’t quite as successful. The flavor was there, and I loved the slightly blackened, crisped skin, but the meat was on the dry side. The fried plantains it came with, though, are garlicky goodness, smeared with the piquant, herbal “papa verde” sauce: lime, cilantro, and more garlic. Garlic, by the way, is another hallmark of Caribbean cuisine, so leave prepared for it to ooze from your pores for the next 24 hours. Both the ribs and the chicken also come with a scoop of pistachio rice and a tangy, crunchy coleslaw that’s not the least bit overdressed with mayo. The cooling coleslaw could easily render a side of the green “paw paw” papaya salad redundant, except that it was refreshing in a different way, the sweet-vegetal flavor of fresh papaya always a welcome partnership on my palate.

“Real Cuban black beans” bob in a flavor-busting stew with bits of house-smoked and braised pork and a hunk of andouille sausage sitting kingly in the center. It’s considered a side, but I wouldn’t judge anyone who ordered it as a main dish. Glazed ginger yams were unusual in the good sense of the word, though they reminded me more of an East Indian dish than a Caribbean one. I couldn’t read sweet potato in the sweet potato cornbread, two cake-like slabs of it, and though we were told it contained a lot of cream, it was woefully dry. I quickly got over the disappointment thanks to deep fried soft-shell crab (something you rarely find on a Seattle menu), which was a knockout. Unlike so many versions of this dish, you end up with not just breading, but the juicy, seawater sweetness of the crab meat itself, a tiny eruption of beautiful brine.

Drinks are all about the tropics, many of them rum-based. However, a lychee lemon drop made from housemade lychee lemonade has its sweetness well-tempered with rosemary-infused vodka, and a boomerang Manhattan is spiced intricately with a cherry/orange/apricot/walnut/cinnamon/vanilla/peppercorn liqueur and bitters.

There are two desserts to choose from, and while we went with the tres leches cake, the owner informed us that we’d missed out on the coconut milk/caramel bread pudding. The cake was all right though; what’s not to love about copious amounts of cream, sugar, sponge cake, and, in this case, an infusion of—what else—rum?

As we double-dipped and reached and grabbed for all of the goods scattered across the table, our spirits were buoyed further by the simple but striking ambience. Rich teals and canary yellows dominate, and are offset by colorful, graphic artwork and giant palm leaves reaching out from atop barrels. It’s clearly Caribbean, but not kitschy in that tropical-beachside-bar kind of way. It wasn’t until we were finishing up and the owner came over to chat that I realized he also owns the Caribbean Papa Bois food truck that I fiended over many summer nights at the Queen Anne Farmer’s market. Turns out I’d been eating his jerk-chicken rice bowl with plantains—and singing its praises—before I’d ever set foot in Jerk Shack. Now I can satisfy my craving all year long.

Jerk Shack, 2510 1st Ave, 206.441.7817