Jane Stern: Norwalk’s Jerk House a Caribbean oasis
I should have gotten over it by now, but every time I see any food called “jerk” I laugh. Last year a good friend brought me to her Caribbean home and we ate out every night. I sat at the restaurant tables and tittered like a 6-year-old. My friend had the “get over it already” look I have come to expect.
Embarrassingly, I have not gotten over it, but I did put my game face on long enough to find an absolutely marvelous place in Norwalk called Jerk House, and managed to stay there awhile and not look like a giggling “jerk.” In truth, I have driven past Jerk House a few times this year, but was not sure if I should eat there. It is a rather ramshackle, urban storefront on a semi-deserted street with nothing decor-wise that calms us uppity suburban types. But I know enough about food to remember that any place that looks this “authentic” probably is, and so I ventured inside.
For those who do not know the culinary term “jerk,” it refers to a popular style of Jamaican cooking. It can be chicken, pork, oxtails or many other critters that are jerked, but the process is the same. You make a mixture of spices (this varies from chef to chef) that often includes cloves, Scotch bonnet peppers, fresh thyme, nutmeg, ginger, brown sugar, allspice berries, soy sauce, salt and water. Into this brined marinade, you let the meat soak overnight, then you carefully grill it. I have yet to taste a jerk dish that doesn’t taste singular. Because of the freewheeling assortment of spices used, the dish varies wildly. There seems to be no “correct” way to make jerk chicken.
My intrepid attitude paid off. The jerk pork and jerk chicken served at Jerk House was as good, if not better, than any I had on my island sojourns. Of course, I would never ask the chef what was in the jerk sauce (jerk sauces are often family secrets), so I can’t replicate it at home. But I am not sure I would have the patience to oversee the complicated process when I can drive 10 miles and eat it here.
If the jerk chicken was great, the jerk pork was spectacular. I know this sounds strange, but if the chef had accidentally left out the pulled pork, I would have still loved it. The sauce was that good. I wanted a bowl of it; you could put it on a paper napkin and it would be four stars.
There is a small selection of other dishes. I had the curried chicken, which was fine, but did not knock my socks off the way the jerk did. I had a Jamaican meat pie, which was flaky and nicely spiced, but I just wanted more jerk sauce. There are some goofy labeled cans of soda in the cooler, not the usual American Coke and Pepsi. I especially liked the can of “Ting,” a super-sweet pineapple brew.
The prices at jerk house are very reasonable. You get a ton of bang for the buck. My jerked entrees came in a plastic clamshell (yes, it is takeout only) loaded with my choice of meat, fried plantains, cooked cabbage, rice and beans. You can also get curry goat, but I live next door to a very sweet pet goat and didn’t want to make the leap to eating his kinfolk.
The restaurant also sells soul food from Miss Barbara Jean’s Soul Food restaurant in Norwalk, which I reviewed recently. The amazing collard greens, candied yams, sweet potato pie and other specialties are on an adjunct chalkboard on the wall. In a surprisingly modern fashion, this funky little place has arranged for Uber to deliver your food quickly.
1 Mulvoy, Norwalk; 203-957-3017
Would I hesitate again to visit this “hole in the wall?” This funky little place situated on a side street and painted (roughly) the colors of the Jamaican flag: yellow, green and black? No, there is no way I can stay away and I suggest you follow my lead. The cook and servers are very friendly and want to please. They take tremendous pride in making the legendary island cuisine authentic. It is so hard for a tiny place like Jerk House to survive in the high-profile, cutthroat restaurant business. I applaud them for giving it a go and making it a destination stop.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.