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Like its chef and owner, Caribbean Plate in Falls Church is good at many things

Owner Rod O'Savio pours a mango rainbow smoothie at Caribbean Plate in Falls Church. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

In Jamaica, jerk is an adjective. It is a verb. It is a description. It is a process. It is a way of life on the island, where jerking the flesh of wild-caught animals was originally about preserving the meat, not just flavoring it. Maroons, enslaved West Africans who fled their captors and established free communities in Jamaica’s remote mountains, were among the first to apply jerk seasonings to wild boar, which was introduced to the island by the Spaniards, the very people responsible for developing this ecosystem hostile to man and beast.

“Although some meat was eaten at the time of the hunt, most had to be preserved until the next opportunity to hunt presented itself — and who could tell when that would be?” writes Helen Willinsky in “Jerk from Jamaica.” “Jerk seasoning, which is laced heavily with salt and peppers, kept the meat from spoiling.”

Centuries later, jerk cooking has evolved to a state that descendants of the Maroons would hardly recognize. Pork is not even the preferred protein. Chicken has long since taken its place as the signature meat. The bird is practically synonymous with jerk, whether on the beaches of Jamaica’s north coast or on the concrete streets of suburban D.C.

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At 66, Rod O’Savio has enough years under his belt to remember when many Jamaicans made the transition from pork to chicken. In the mid-20th century, he recalls, back before his home country had a robust food safety program, it wasn’t unusual to get sick from pork. Jamaicans of a certain age, O’Savio swears, have horror stories about a semiregular “wash out,” an herbal drink that would cleanse their systems. His description of a washout is perhaps more suitable for a medical journal than a restaurant review.

But give O’Savio credit. His childhood trauma in Kingston did not guide his decision-making at Caribbean Plate, his sunny restaurant in the corner of a Falls Church strip center that, in the midafternoon sun, looks like a two-story structure built from Jamaican sand. Right there under the “Goat, Pork & Oxtail” section of his menu is a dish that dates back to the Maroons of the 18th century: jerk pork.

To be honest, I had looked right past the jerk pork on every visit to Caribbean Plate, save for my last one. It was only in flipping through the pages of Willinsky’s book that I realized O’Savio was doing something rare among Jamaican chefs and restaurateurs: He was honoring tradition with his pork dish. I had to try it before deadline, even if I couldn’t ask photographer Deb Lindsey to make a second trip to the restaurant to take a beauty shot of the dish. It doesn’t really matter: There’s nothing particularly pretty about the jerk pork. It’s basically a pile of shoulder meat, cut into pieces the size of new potatoes, and slathered with a dark, shimmering paste that all but serves a caution sign to those who fear the burn.

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O’Savio and his team have a gift for jerking meats, which may sound strange for those who believe any dish that falls under the “jerk” category must be grilled with wood and/or charcoal, preferably the green wood of a pimento tree smoldering in a freshly dug hole in the earth. As I noted recently with O’Savio’s jerk club sandwich, he relies on an oven, not a grill, for his jerk meats. He may sacrifice smokiness, but he doesn’t skimp on spice. His jerk dishes lean on Walkerswood seasoning but they’re also dusted with dry spices that O’Savio imports from Jamaica, usually inside his own suitcase. It’s a custom blend of allspice, black pepper, garlic, onions, salt and some sweeter aromatics.

“When you combine that with everything else, you get a unique taste that you just can’t explain,” he says.

Let me try to explain it: The pinch of scotch bonnet peppers is prominent, but not dominant. Its blaze is contained by ingredients well-trained in the science of controlling wild fires: You sense the usual dampening agents, including cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, but also dried herbs and Jamaican allspice, the latter a key aromatic that bridges the divide between the sweet and the heat. The beauty of O’Savio’s jerk meats, whether pork or chicken, is their ability to pull your palate in so many directions, yet still maintain an essential Jamaican harmony.

If the name Rod O’Savio doesn’t strike a chord, perhaps his nickname will: He’s probably better known as the Muffin Man, a title that this self-taught chef adopted when he made the unorthodox decision to combine his backgrounds in baking and Jamaican cooking. He started selling jerk chicken and large, handheld muffins accented with flavors from his native country and his adopted one. O’Savio and his former wife ran the Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe (sometimes known as Muffin Man Caribbean Express) in Lanham for years until they went through a messy divorce and he had to rebuild his life at a time when many folks start thinking about retirement.

O’Savio debuted Caribbean Plate in 2015. Its decor incorporates industrial and tropical elements: corrugated metal and overhead air ducts, beach umbrellas and verdant clapboard walls reminiscent of Jamaican huts. The space also reads as biography: You’ll find random soccer balls scattered throughout the room, reminders of O’Savio’s passion outside the kitchen. He was a collegiate soccer player, one good enough to enjoy a brief career in America’s budding professional ranks.

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Inside Caribbean Plate, you sense the same combination of talent and unrelenting drive that marks any athlete who rises to the professional level. O’Savio’s place isn’t content to play one role. Caribbean Plate is part jerk hut, part roti shop, part escovitch fish shack and part smoothie stop. You’ll find curried goat and oxtail, curry chicken roti, jerk shrimp pasta, whole head-on snapper smothered in warm pickled vegetables, beef patties, jerk wings, brown stew chicken and more. O’Savio is even reintroducing his muffins, which were sometimes an off-the-menu item for those in the know (which did not include me).

I’ve tried all the above, save for those mysterious muffins. I have favorites: The curry chicken roti is something special, a semi-soupy preparation ladled into chewy dhalpuri flatbread, which itself has been formed into a kind of makeshift tureen that slowly absorbs the mild curry sauce within its folds. The jerk wings are saucy, spicy, slippery and compulsory eating. The bone-in brown stew chicken must be paired with peas and rice, so that its salty, savory drippings can season the grains and beans underneath. The curried oxtail has been cooked to a gelatinous state, its bone-in pieces perfumed with a delicate spice blend.

You can safely skip the patties, these wooden meat pies that O’Savio orders from an outside vendor. You can even bypass the jerk shrimp pasta, a small handful of deveined crustaceans that rely on a Jamaican Alfredo sauce for their spice. These mid-grade offerings just waste valuable calories better spent on O’Savio’s curries, rotis and jerk dishes, their echoes of home loud and unmistakable.

Caribbean Plate

133 E. Annandale Road, Falls Church, 703-942-8580;

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a 1.3-mile trip to the restaurant.

Prices: $2 to $35 for everything on the menu.


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