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Get Down and Dirty At the Jerk Pit

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005

ABANDON white, all ye who enter here.

The only safe way to address dinner at the Jerk Pit is in wash-and-wear. "You have to use your hands" is owner-chef Phil Tapper's cheery mantra, and you should prepare to take him seriously. The utensils are plastic and none too sharp; the plates are Styrofoam; and while there are a couple of dishes that can be managed with a fork, somewhere along the way -- either to pull off a bone, dip a wing or lick up a sandwich drip -- you're going to have to leave your dignity in the car. Even the fish, a little red snapper that -- as in all cuisines -- is best cooked whole, ends up as finger food, even if you only debone it. (And you should take a nibble on the crispy tail.) And when it comes to getting under the fingernails, jerk seasoning makes barbecue sauce look tame.

This low-key College Park storefront knows one big thing, and knows it in a lot of little ways. It's the house-made jerk sauce, big pots of which are filled with chicken and pork cubes and shrimp marinating and awaiting their turn on the grill. It's not shy with the jerk, either; it's dense and dark, with tantalizing whiffs of whole allspice (usually called "pimento" from the tree in the Caribbean) and cinnamon along with the peppercorns and chilies. It's not paralyzingly hot by any means, but it'll sure bring all your taste buds to the table.

The jerk wings may be the best thing on the menu, partly because the meat stays moist and perhaps because the ratio of seasoned skin to meat is so much higher on a small bone. They come six to eight to an order, with a hefty supply of a thickish dipping sauce that tastes like a mix of habanero and sweet-and-sour sauce. The additional incendiary elements are fun, but the sweet tends to battle the charcoal flavor; the more straightforward scotch bonnet sauce on the counter works better. On the other hand, the wings are also available unrubbed and plainly grilled, and in that case the sweeter dip gives them a worthwhile boost.

What might be the second-best thing on the menu are the patties, Pop-Tart size and made of a fine flaky dough whose turmeric tinting hints at its own distinct tang. There are several filling choices -- chicken, ground beef, shrimp and "calaloo," which is cabbage rather than kale, but tasty -- and the real temptation is to eat a patty and then get a double order of wings, especially if you're carrying out: You can take the edge off with the patty while the wings are grilling, and as it happens, the wings hold up particularly well.

The jerk chicken, available in quarter- and half-bird portions, is very good and, depending on your taste, allows for more of the grill flavor and spreads the heat out a little more. It's just about as messy as the wings, however, as the pieces are chopped into two or three pickup bites and pretty much have to be nibbled off the bones.

The pork, as is traditional, retains much of its fat, so some people may want to sort through it. The meat seems to take the brown spices better, although that might have just been a day for extra pimento.

Those baby snappers can be had jerked, which is pretty dominating, or escoveitch-style, which is better. Quick-fried but almost greaseless, topped with a vinegary relish of onions and sweet peppers, it's a nice change of pace. (Yes, you can get it filleted, but it loses a little in translation.) Other than that, there isn't much to master. The common side dish is rice and peas, a Jamaican version of red beans and rice that comes drizzled with hot sauce.

Even the salads and sandwiches -- chicken or fish -- are jerked. "Festival" is the island version of fried dough; the "Jerk Pit special cake" is something like Boston cream pie, only with coconut instead of chocolate. (The rum cake -- soaked pound cake -- has the metallic tang of artificial flavoring.)

The menu is gradually expanding, though only within a tight range. Oxtail stew, for instance, which has been an occasional special, may become a Friday staple. There is usually a soup of the day, such as the fish soup, which was very like old-fashioned chicken and veggies in white broth except for the meat. Chicken in moderately hot yellow curry sauce, thickened by a little potato, is a frequent special (remember the bone bits).

Note, however, that this is not fast food. While the stews and sauces are ready in the kitchen, the meats are grilled to order, and Tapper is careful that the chicken be cooked through, so be patient.

The Jerk Pit has applied for a beer and wine license -- beer would be especially welcome -- but in the meantime stocks ginger beer, cream soda and several fruit drinks, such as coconut water, carrot-sorrel juice and pineapple-ginger. (Warning: Those table mats are uneven and pose a tipping hazard.) Irish moss is a sweet, thick, cinnamon-flavored drink made from carrageen, a seaweed closely related to agar-agar; it's like liquid tapioca and very soothing.

Escoveitch-style fish with a side of rice and peas at College Park's Jerk Pit.

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