Squid Ink Food Fight: Chicken Jerk Off
Jerk chicken is a dish that seems to have an inordinate number of fans, and I'm not sure why. That's not to say that jerk chicken isn't delicious--it is--I just don't understand why so many people seem to have eaten it. Los Angeles is not loaded with Jamaican restaurants, let alone good ones, and I rarely hear about friends going on vacations to Jamaica. But for some reason, everyone has eaten jerk chicken, and they all like it. For this week's food fight, we tackle the breezy, casual and brightly colored Santa Monica staple Cha Cha Chicken, and see how it stacks up against the divey market/restaurant Natraliart, stuck proudly on Washington Boulevard, just east of Crenshaw.
Cha Cha is Caribbean, rather than specifically Jamaican, and their dishes tend to veer from the traditional (among their most popular orders are the jerk chicken enchiladas). It is a wildly accessible restaurant, with outdoor seating, the smell of the nearby ocean and a menu that features something for everyone. We ordered the half Cha Cha chicken (their version of the jerk) hot with plantains and rice. An initial comment from a fellow diner summed up the level of heat well, calling it "Santa Monica spicy." The chicken itself was drenched in a wet sauce which didn't permeate the meat particularly well, and was cooked somewhat inconsistently. The plantains were adequate and the rice was fairly bland and irrelevant. It was, in essence, a perfectly acceptable restaurant in a nice setting, but probably not worth scheduling an afternoon around.
N. Galuten Jerk chicken at Natraliart.
Natraliart, however, is something different. Let's just say there's a much higher chance of running into actual Jamaicans there. The jerk chicken isn't much to look at and comes piled on the plate, flanked by buttery vegetables, a better version of plantains and a small mountain of soothing coconut rice. But the chicken is the chicken you've been waiting for. Appropriately dry on the outside (though it is accompanied by gravy and jerk sauce if that's your inclination), but cooked nicely, and most importantly, with flavor permeating every morsel of the dead bird. If it's some additional heat you're after, look no further than the bottle of Calypso hot sauce on the table. Wash your bites down with a glass of their freshly made Reggae punch or hibiscus sour sop, then just close your eyes and pretend you're on a beach vacation. It almost works, I swear.