A portrait of Bob Marley greets you as you walk in the door. That, and a haze of thick, fragrant smoke hanging in the air. The smoke is strictly legal, mind you, pouring forth from a wood charcoal grill that's turning out jerk chicken with a crisp black exterior. We're on Jamaica time. It's noon and a few of the dishes listed on the board aren't quite ready yet, even though the restaurant's posted hours say they open at 11 a.m. My friend Broderick, whose family is Jamaican, was smart enough to call ahead when I suggested we meet at 11:30. He had a feeling that might be a bit too early. He was right, of course. But no worries, we're now ready to dig in to some jerk chicken, rice and peas, fried plantain, brown stew chicken and more. The curry goat? Not done yet. Oxtail? None today. Ting and kola champagne sodas? Ran out a few days ago. So it goes.
Despite the laid-back attitude, Jamrock Jerk Center is not set amidst the palm trees of Jamaica. It's here in Atlanta, not far off the downtown connector, on Metropolitan Parkway. It opened just a few months ago, and the owners have imparted a nice Jamaican vibe. The boisterous colors freshly painted on the exterior and the plumes of smoke beckon. And, once inside, so does the food. Everything rings true until ... is that the baritone voice of Michael Bublé singing jazz standards over the sound system? I think I saw Bob Marley's portrait hanging his head in shame. But even Michael Bublé can't stop the fact that Jamrock's jerk chicken is rockin'. That blackened, crisp skin is packed with flavor without being excessive, no burnt up dry spice to distract from the tender meat inside. Picking the hacked up bones out of your mouth is as much a pleasure as it is a distraction when the chicken is this good. A generous squirt of the spicy-sweet jerk sauce layered onto the simple rice and peas (that means beans, not peas) is a perfect accompaniment, as are the piping hot fried plantains. If only I had a kola champagne.
Jamrock serves up most of its food out of steam trays behind the counter, starting with a generous portion of the rice and peas spooned into a Styrofoam container, weighing it down. The options stick to Jamaican classics like oxtail, curry goat, and meat patties. Along with the blackened jerk chicken and its bright sunset-red sauce, many of the dishes seem to inhabit a color as much as a flavor, the vibrancy of the sauces matching the bright colors painted on the walls. Jamrock's tender brown stew chicken has soaked up the dark, spiced stew it has been simmering in so well that it almost looks like cubes of steak. Likewise, the bone-in chunks of goat meat bathe in a deep brown ochre curry, tempting you to pick it up bite-by-bite despite the sure stains to be left behind on your fingers. A bright and crisp side of steamed vegetables acts as a refreshing counterpoint to the heartier dishes, simple cabbage in shades of green and white, flecked with orange slivers of carrot.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the beef patties — flaky pockets of flavorful, practically pulverized ground beef and spices inside a turmeric gold shell. Jamrock admittedly ships these savory pastries in, rather than make them in-house. While the countertop warming oven filled with pre-made pastries may not look so appealing, the classic Jamaican pairing of a warm beef patty and a cold D&G Kola Champagne is enough to make even a sommelier sing. Let's just hope the song is something by Bob Marley and everything will be right in the world — a little reggae, a bit of smoke, and a plate full of filling Jamaican food can satisfy just about any soul.