Over the last ten years or so, the rage for Caribbean food has sputtered into life, exploded into ubiquitousness and faded away, only to be reborn as Florida cuisine, which means, roughly, grilled things, plantains with everything and a certain predilection for mango-tamarind salsa. If you’ve ever eaten three consecutive non-Cuban meals in South Florida, especially at the famous places, you may wonder why anyone would want to export the stuff any farther than the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, but that’s a different story altogether. I have just one thing to say about the new Florida cooking: fried conch in a sort of thin vanilla custard . . . from a James Beard Award-winning chef.
The defining dish of the Miami-influenced menu--just, come to think of it, as it was to most of the neo-Caribbean menus the first time around--seems to be Jamaican jerk chicken, a preparation that can remind you of the world’s best barbecue when correctly executed, and political-benefit rubber chicken in a sweet, slightly spicy brown sauce when it is not. Good jerk chicken, rubbed with dry spice and grilled over fragrant hardwood, is as crisp-skinned and juicy as any chicken you’ve ever eaten. Good jerk chicken, strictly speaking, needs no sauce--though the sauce, thin, vinegary, heated almost to the blister point with capsaicin-rich Scotch bonnet chiles, is always somewhere on the table.
And though island cuisine has been bubbling for more than a decade in Los Angeles, though there are half a dozen decent Jamaican restaurants and almost as many good neo-Caribbean joints, most of them called Cha Cha Cha, there is still only one jerk-chicken place worth going to: Janet’s Original Jerk Chicken Pit, almost immediately at the midpoint on King Boulevard between USC and Leimert Park, which sizzles to life the barbecue of dreams. Through the judicious use of bamboo curtains and a slowly whirring ceiling fan, the brightly colored dining room of Janet’s feels like a screened island porch even though the place is next door to a bail bondsman and across the street from the local police station. When the wind is right, you can smell Janet’s from three blocks away.
What you get at Janet’s is, of course, jerk chicken on a Styrofoam plate, grilled to order, with a piece of festival bread alongside and a mound of beans and rice that tastes as if it has been simmered with a little coconut milk. (Perhaps you will be liberal enough to consider festival bread--a sort of unsweetened cruller--a vegetable; perhaps you will also order a sweet, roasted yam.) The chicken is crackly-crisp, moist, with crunchy bits of burnt skin and an appealingly gritty coating of allspice and cracked black pepper that sometimes fills the room with a scent more like Christmas cookies than like garlicky grilled bird.
Jerk pork is kind of the same idea applied to chewy chunks of boneless pig: very nice. Jerk fish is highly seasoned if on the dry side; jerk ribs, a Jamaican take on the leathery, almost jerky-like consistency of the Mexican tasajo ; jerk burgers, just what you’d expect, but not bad doused with a jolt of Janet’s pitch-black jerk sauce, which can singe your esophagus if you’re not careful but has tropical-fruit flavor for days.
* Janet’s Original Jerk Chicken Pit
1541 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 296-4621. Open Mon.-Thurs., noon to 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon to 9 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Weekday lunch for two, food only, $7-$13; dinner for two, food only, $12-$20.