Drink of the week:
Ja' Rum Punch at Ja' Grill
, 1008 W. Armitage Ave.
The damage: $10.
Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? My monthly dining club walked into the recently opened Jamaican restaurant Ja' Grill with zero expectations. Personally, I've never been to Jamaica, and the only person I've known to vacation there spent her honeymoon at a Sandals resort, where I'm guessing the food was about as authentic as my attempt at a Rastafarian accent (which, like every other accent I try to imitate, inevitably sounds Chinese). Sure, we had all sampled a variation of jerk chicken before, but we were more or less clueless about the cuisine. But well before our entrees arrived, we had zeroed in on exactly what we were in for: an assembly of flavors that would leave us yearning for the island life. My filled-to-the-brim pint glass of rum punch was all the proof we needed.
How it went down: Though Ja' Grill offers a few wines by the glass and the requisite Red Stripe, you must treat yourself to a glass of Ja' Rum—and one will probably do you just fine. With an even mix of dark rum, light rum and coconut rum totaling six ounces, the booze portion of the punch fills the glass until just about two fingers' worth of space remains at the top. The bartender tops off the potent blend with a mix of three tropical juices, the identities of which the management remains mum on, and rests an orange slice on the rim for garnish.
I caught myself sucking the pink punch down like a kid going to town on Kool-Aid. I stopped myself at the half-way point to savor the flavor; it reminded me of a Mai Tai but with more of a coconut bent, and it tasted less sweet than I expected, making it all the more drinkable—for better or for worse.
Would I want to become a regular? Our food arrived and I immediately began eyeing my friend's heap of veggie stew. Its creamy coconut flavor ended being the big hit of the evening, though those of us who went the seafood route didn't feel the least bit slighted. My jerk catfish was a meaty, almost steak-like cut of perfectly seasoned fish, and I literally scraped up every last grain of rice dotted with peas by heaping them onto the dense Jamaican hardough bread. Plates cleaned, we all sunk into the U-shaped leather booth, watching a steady stream of Lincoln Parkers waltz into the brick-walled space. My clubmates agreed that this would go down as one of the tastiest meals we had encountered, and as if the food wasn't enough to lure us back, word on the street is that it'll soon host rum tastings in its basement lounge.
Dana Kavan scours the city for drink deals so good you'll offer to buy a round and creative libations that outshine your average on-the-rocks concoctions. Want to give Dana tips on where to rack up a bar tab? Share your finds before her next night out.