Taj Cooke knows Jamaican cuisine. A professional chef who grew up in Jamaica, he's not only eaten the food of the Caribbean island nation all of his life, but he can cook it, too. He knows each ingredient that makes Jamaican food special, and he knows how to make vegetarian versions of his favorites.
Cooke, who has worked at Denver restaurants as varied as Biju's Little Curry Shop, Mother Tongue, the Kitchen Next Door and Block & Larder and now runs his own business, Ms. Betty's Cooking, is not a vegetarian, but he knows the importance of a meatless lifestyle for some of his fellow Jamaicans, especially Rastafarians. "I eat meat, but it's not who I am," he explains.
So when I talked to him about a new Jamaican restaurant called Jamaican Jerk & BBQ that just opened at 4611 Peoria Street in Montbello at the beginning of August, he was excited to see what was on the menu, learn more about which towns in Jamaica the food represents and find out how the dishes are prepared.
Jamaican Jerk & BBQ is decidedly not a vegetarian restaurant. Dishes include jerk pork and chicken, braised oxtail and beans, curry goat (or mutton, as it's called on the menu) and red peas soup with pig tails. Cooke lights up at the mention of that last dish. "It's eaten all over the island, and everyone knows how to make it," he says. "But if you don't want to use pig tails, you can make it with crushed peanuts, which gives it that umami you need."
Sadly, the day I placed a lunch order at Jamaican Jerk & BBQ, it wasn't serving the red peas soup (the red peas are actually kidney beans, cooked long enough that the broth thickens and turns a reddish brown), but the other meaty dishes were all available, including ackee with saltfish, an uncommon dish outside of Jamaica.
Ackee (a tropical fruit used in savory preparations) with saltfish is the unofficial national dish of Jamaica, so it’s curious that more Jamaican restaurants in the U.S. don’t make it. But Cooke has an explanation: Fresh ackee just isn’t available in this country. The fruit is only edible when completely ripe, and shipping it to the U.S. is not legal unless it’s canned — but the softer texture of canned ackee makes it harder to work with. The ackee at Jamaican Jerk & BBQ is tasty, though, with a texture and color similar to that of scrambled eggs, but with a noticeable vegetable flavor and pulpiness. Firm bits of white fish are interspersed, adding a saltiness that’s balanced with bright diced tomato. All of the restaurant’s entrees come with two sides, so rice and plantains would be a good choice with this dish.
The oxtail and beans come in a slick, rich sauce that's not particularly spicy, but the goat curry kicks up the heat a little more. The meats in both dishes are bone-in and fork-tender, though you need to watch out for smaller pieces of bone in the goat. For a spicier entree, try the Hellshire-style escovitched fish, which is pan-fried and then doused in a tangy sauce of vinegar, onions, carrots and Scotch bonnet chiles. Cooke notes that Hellshire is a beach on Jamaica's south shore famous for its fried-fish vendors.
In addition to plantains, plain rice and rice with peas (as with the soup, these are beans, not green peas), the sides include fried bread, cornbread, potato salad, fries, and mac and cheese, among other choices. When you add in the sides, dishes are generally big enough for two people to share, and you can always add sandwiches and Jamaican patties, empanada-style pastry pockets tinted yellow from turmeric in the pastry dough.
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Cooke's own Jamaican menus that he's been offering through pop-ups and catering lean toward the Rastafarian tradition of vegan Ital cooking, which emphasizes fresh and vibrant ingredients. The word "Ital" is "vital" without the v (to emphasize the I, the concept of oneness between the self and God). While most of his dishes aren't traditionally Jamaican, recent examples have included jerk-seasoned mushrooms, and he also offers a tart red drink called sorrel, made with hibiscus flowers. His goal is to show that bold flavors and enlivening meals can be made using fresh, local ingredients, and also to bring a lesser-known aspect of Jamaican food culture to a new audience. While only a small percentage of Jamaicans practice Rastafarianism, a much higher percentage of Jamaicans are vegetarian compared to vegetarians in the U.S. population, Cooke notes.
Jamaican cuisine is a rarity in Denver, with just a handful of food trucks that occasionally pop up and one other restaurant: the Jamaican Grille, at 709 West Eighth Avenue. So both Cooke's activities and Jamaican Jerk & BBQ are welcome additions to the scene. Jamaican Jerk & BBQ is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Online ordering or takeout and delivery are available on the restaurant's website, but you can also call 303-362-0929 to make sure the dishes you want are available.
For a multi-course Ital experience from chef Taj Cooke, grab tickets to one of his pop-up dinners at Bruto (1801 Blake Street) on September 17, October 15 or October 22. The last will feature produce from Denver's Mo' Betta Greenhouse. Tickets are available at brutodenver.com.