Bar none, the very next 'hood poised to become the hottest ticket in town is East Rogers Park—specifically the tucked away pocket near Howard Street. It might take a few years and some major riff-raff clean out, but there is no better location in the city ready for revamping. It's near the lake, the L rumbles nearby, real estate is crazy cheap and do-gooder Evanston is just around the bend. Any remotely in-the-know outsider would say that you'd better get in while you can.
Try telling that to the owners of Jamaica Jerk, though. They've been in their sunny location for more than two years, and not a single new tenant has penetrated their stretch of Howard. Hell, if anything, folks have cleared out. All the better, though; it just makes for an easy dining choice for me, and a BYOB one, no less.
I started off this past Sunday with a mild hangover (Flor de Cana rum goes down like straight caramel water) and a mad hankering for a boatload of starches. The words "macaroni-n-cheese" kept rolling off my tongue while I trolled around the city shopping for new condo goods, and I could not get the image of Jamaica Jerk out of my noggin'. I had heard their sides were to die for, and after driving by and obsessing about the sprightly-looking place so often, it was definitely time for a visit.
I found metered parking a mere 50 feet away from the front door (though free parking is available in back of the restaurant) and rolled into a stone-deserted, tropical-feeling dining room that had a wall-of-windows view of the L tracks and a steady stream of passersby gazing in. And rightly so; the Caribbean-influenced food being doled out is mouthwatering material.
I went a little berserk and ordered up every single big-time carb item on the menu: soft cornbread, a bowl of rice and beans, lightly fried chickpea cakes, a handful of coconut-fried shrimp, gooey mac-n-cheese and the Jamaican tribute to the southern hushpuppy, a pile of Johnnycakes. I know the waiter/owner must have thought I was a little nutso when I told him to unleash it all at once, but I could have it no other way.
About 10 minutes later, he loaded down my table with platters of food that were definitely graced by a woman's touch. Tiny twists of parsley decorated the three-decks-of-cards-size macaroni and cheese slab, while my butter came out half melted and ready to be sopped up by the addictive donut hole-like consistency of the Johnnycakes. The pan-formed cornbread nestled its way into my dish of red beans and rice, and the baby chickpea fritters were amazingly delicate. All that goodness said, the coconut shrimp were the first to go, and I managed to practically lick clean the dish of sweet sauce that accompanied them.
The absolute topper of a wash-down was the homemade sorrel ginger juice. Made in house, this brilliant red drink makes every over-sugared drink beverage calls itself a refreshment pale in comparison. You'd have to hit up the Caribbean to get goods this authentic, and since winter doesn't seem to be going anywhere, it might not be a bad idea to head south. But, just in case you can't roll like that, we've always got our pals at Jamaica Jerk...flask not included.
The Final Rave: People gush about the grape nut-flecked ice cream, also made in house, but I'd hedge my bets on the liquor-infused rum cake. How can you go wrong with rum?
Keep It Going:
Buy it: Flight 001
This tiny travel shop has the coolest travel bags out there, but expect to pay a pretty penny for them. Funky bag or round trip ticket to Miami? Hmmmm...
Eat it: World Cost Plus Market
The food section of this global market has some of the best deals around on exotic spices, lush chocolates and wonderful wines. Even better sales can be found on the website.
Drink it: Hibiscus Tea
A relative of the sorrel plant, this ruby-colored plant is straight out of the old world tropics. Lipton has nothing on this delicious herbal tea.
Get crazy with it: Budget Travel Magazine
Every single month, this delightful magazine has listings on the cheapest trips to take right now. Seems our buds down in Jamaica are all cheap, all the time.