I’ll answer that question shortly, but first allow me to try to recreate my first experience with Just Jerk’s chicken. It was a moment that, for me, pulled together many of the elements that make food scouting such a joy: It combined the thrill of the hunt (the shack is hidden among a twisted pretzel of streets in Maryland), the tingling discomfort of venturing beyond one’s cultural comfort zone and the delight of biting into something so satisfying that you can’t wait to tell others.
When I pulled the lid off my first order of dark meat chicken — I was sitting in the car, because the place provides metal folding chairs for waiting customers only — I was struck by the aroma. I could smell allspice and smoke and this high minty note of herbs, probably thyme. The chicken was chopped into bone-in pieces and charred just a shade short of blackened. My mouth watered. My first bite — a succulent one full of sweet, lusty and dusky spices — fulfilled all the promise that I had, just minutes earlier, invented for Just Jerk.
As if the chicken didn’t stimulate my brain’s pleasure center enough, I grabbed a plastic fork and dug into the rice and beans buried under my bird. I was alone at the time, and I remember uttering the words, “Oh, God,” to no one in particular — or perhaps to the creator himself as a kind of heathen’s thanks for these starchy morsels lacquered with meat juices and jerk seasonings.
What genius, I wondered, was behind Just Jerk? After my initial phone messages resulted in zero callbacks, I decided to show up at Just Jerk and identify myself to co-owner Philip Ajaj. This place was too good to allow to slip through my fingers, like some restaurants I try to spotlight in this column. Ajaj, I should note, is not Jamaican. He’s American, born in Northwest Washington.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before: the outsider’s fascination for another’s cuisine, whether Frenchman Michel Richard’s love of American fried chicken or Spaniard JoséAndrés’s affection for America’s lost culinary history. Ajaj and his business partner, Pierre Stone, were for years traveling reggae musicians, bouncing from band to band, country to country. Between beats, the bass-toting Ajaj fell hard for Jamaican culture.
When the day came — as it does for many musicians toiling in the trenches — to secure a job with more stability than what the music business can provide, Ajaj enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine and launched a second peripatetic life in the restaurant industry. He bounced around a number of restaurants, including Jackie’s in Silver Spring and the now-shuttered Felix in Adams Morgan, before opening Just Jerk in 2006 in Lanham, where he had settled.