Prince Rowe crosses his massively muscled arms and laughs drily. "You want to try to recreate my jerk?" the owner of North Vancouver's Kingston 11 Reggae Café scoffs.
"Hell, yeah," I say, poking my head behind the counter while quizzing him on his spice-rub ingredients. If I could come close to replicating his moist, crispy crusted, mouth-tingling chicken, I'd be the star of every backyard barbecue party around.
"You'll never do it," taunts the Jamaican-born chef, who says he learned the art of pinch-and-dash seasoning as a young boy by his grandmother's side. "This recipe is ancient."
"How ancient?" I counter, scrambling to recall my Caribbean colonial history. "Five hundred years?"
He shakes his head and stands tall, drawing on a proud African ancestry that lays claim to this distinctive style of spicy charred meat. "Fifty thousand years."
"Guess you've had to adjust the cooking methods."
"There were always ovens," he says. "Mud ovens, pit ovens, charcoal ovens. … Now we put it in a convection oven because we have to acclimatize to the city. But soul food is all about feeling. If you do not feel my food, you're numb."
Well, my lips are numb, pleasantly so. One bite and I was addicted to Mr. Rowe's clove-infused marinade, which cools the mouth, allowing Scotch bonnet peppers to dance madly off the roof.
But I still have four more jerk-chicken joints to go.
"Good thing you're taking this home," he says, packing my leftovers in a Styrofoam container. "After you eat all those other things, you're going to need to taste this again and cleanse your palate with real jerk chicken."
Game on. We'll see.
1018 Commercial Dr.,
4172 Main St., Vancouver,
Yale Rd. E., Chilliwack,
604-392-4444; 533 Yates St.,
This may be the most popular Caribbean mini-chain restaurant in Vancouver and beyond, but its jerk dinner ($14) is the absolute worst. Let's start with the chicken – a puffy, dried out, bone-in breast with no skin, fat or hint of tenderness. The bland white meat is so tough it's difficult to cut with a knife and fork. It has obviously not been marinated in the house jerk sauce, a dark glop poured over top that tastes like cheap Chinese black bean paste. Vinegary slaw brings some liveliness to the plate, but the rice is a blend of undercooked grains and burnt leftovers. Inedible.
Riddim & Spice
1945 Commercial Dr.,
Vancouver; 604-215-9252A magnanimous host with gold teeth caps and the constant flow of take-out customers initially makes it feel like we've stumbled into a special hole-in-the-wall. But the jerk chicken ($9.95) sorely disappoints. I'm not even sure if this flaccid skinned drumstick and breast, slathered in sweet, cornstarch-thickened gravy, even qualifies as jerk. The meat is flavourless. The sauce tastes like peanut butter tossed with thyme. The rice is comparable to Uncle Ben's. And the iceberg salad is soaked with bottled Italian dressing. Yet it's still better than the Reef.
428 Carrall St., Vancouver; 604-568-5882. Calabashbistro.comCullin David may look like a rebel as he works the grill with his long dreadlocks tucked in a Rastafarian tam-o-shanter. But he's actually a tightly disciplined, French-trained chef who spent a decade at Provence Marinaside before opening this reggaecentric restaurant. So it's no surprise that his jerk chicken ($14) is a classic roast bathed in Jamaican-spiced jus. The free-range bird falls off the bone and the skin is crisp, but there's not enough peppery heat to jump-start a wintry allspice-cinnamon rub. And given how he dotes on finely sliced, al dente veggies garnished with lemongrass, quick converted rice seems lazy. This is dumbed-down gourmet jerk.
Calypso Foods Ltd.
208-8322 130th St. Surrey; 604-598-1170.The vintage Jamaican tourism posters are reason enough to visit this hidden gem of takeout restaurant in a godforsaken industrial complex. Remember the curvaceous young woman in a soaking wet red T-shirt, circa 1972? She's pinned right up there on Tuscan yellow walls under a green canopy of climbing ivy by the counter. I can't say I'm familiar with food warehouses, but this wholesale patty shop (they roll and fold 25,000 every Saturday) could well be one of the cheeriest. Owner Frank Chin Loy is a third generation Jamaican of Hakkanese-Hawaiian descent. And his grilled jerk chicken ($12.50) is probably the most authentic. But for all its dark charred smokiness, it just doesn't have the same tingly heat and zesty spicing that keeps me craving Kingston 11.
Kingston 11 Reggae Café
1336 Lonsdale Ave.,
North Vancouver; 778-340-6966. Kingston11cafe.comPrince, you were right. Your jerk chicken dinner ($12.50) is the tastiest in town. It starts with the quality of your free-range halal poultry, which is plump and succulent but not overblown with hormones. Your secret ancient rub is beautifully balanced with just the right amounts of citrus, warmth and mentholated pepper. Your lightly creamed cabbage salad effectively tames the heat. And you are the only chef using fluffy long-grain rice drizzled with roasted juices. Delicious.