Everyone is here, it appears, for the same thing: owner Maurice Grant’s jerk chicken, which he serves only on Fridays. Patrons wait their turn to speak, quite literally, through the wire metal shelving that blocks a small window through which everyone orders, and receives, their food. If you didn’t know it was there, the window would be easy to overlook. It’s camouflaged not just by the metal shelves but by a variety of household goods and food products: incense, Jamaican curry powders, Maggi seasoning cubes, ginger teas, bottled water, bags of plantain chips, you name it.
The jerk chicken at Move and Groove has a reputation among Washington’s Caribbean community for a reason: It pulls no punches. When you open the clamshell container, the bone-in legs and thighs release invisible clouds of smoke, which fade into the background on first bite. An atmospheric heat abruptly assumes control, authoritative in its scotch-bonnet intensity but benevolent enough to allow the aromatics in the marinade to have their say, not matter how muted. The dish doesn’t soft-pedal its spice with browning sauce or some other sweetener. This jerk chicken lets its heat flag fly.
Grant is Jamaican by birth, which helps to explain his facility with jerk chicken, a dish born on the island, a likely amalgam of indigenous and African influences. Because of its name recognition and sheer deliciousness, jerk chicken has become a dish available at almost every Caribbean market, carryout and restaurant along Georgia Avenue NW, regardless if the owners are Jamaican or Trinidadian.
“I never made jerk chicken in Trinidad. I learned that here,” says Alisa Plaza, co-owner of Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant. “If I sell 100 meals, 80 are going to be jerk chicken.”
In the past few weeks, as I’ve frequented establishments along Georgia Avenue, I’ve been thinking about the food and drink of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean. Mostly, I’ve been contemplating a seeming contradiction: Caribbean cooking, in its many fragrant variations, is widely available in the D.C. area and yet seriously overlooked, at least at the small mom-and-pop operations that hide in plain sight throughout our region.
Perhaps this is because of how seamlessly Caribbean immigrants, many from countries where English is the official language, have integrated into the region, at all levels of society. Some 100,000 immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Guyana and other countries have settled in the metro area, says Claire Nelson, founder and president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies (though she cautions this number is quite “fuzzy”). They live in Gaithersburg, Silver Spring, Prince George’s County, the District and other areas, Nelson says.
With such widespread integration, Caribbean immigrants perhaps haven’t had the benefit of a central gathering spot, a neighborhood that would have the same gravitational pull as the Eden Center in Falls Church for Vietnamese cooking or, back in the day, Adams Morgan for communal Ethiopian platters. You can sort of understand how, in the absence of an established scene to guide newcomers, many might simply gravitate to jerk chicken, a dish that requires little research to grasp. It’s spicy chicken from the grill.
But the Caribbean diaspora in Washington hasn’t always been so scattered, Nelson says. In the 1970s and 1980s, a fair number of Caribbean immigrants lived on Georgia Avenue near Howard University, the historically Black university that has long been hallowed ground for scholars from the islands. A business corridor developed along the avenue to cater to the community, including two mainstays from the era: Brown’s Caribbean Bakery and Rita’s W.I. Carryout. The former was Jamaican, the latter Trinidadian.
“If I wanted food, I had to drive on Georgia Avenue,” remembers Nelson, who came to the United States in the early 1980s. For obvious reasons, the annual D.C. Caribbean Carnival paraded down Georgia Avenue until the celebration was compelled to move to Baltimore in 2012. For decades, the street was a home away from home for Caribbean expats.
Washington’s development boom hasn’t completely erased the Caribbean footprint on Georgia, either. From Negril to Teddy’s Roti Shop, and numerous establishments in between, the Caribbean community still has a strong presence along the thoroughfare, even if many of their customers have moved out of the area.
“However, they come in to D.C. to make their purchases at Caribbean businesses,” says Jennifer Selman, co-owner of Crown Bakery Restaurant and Catering (5409 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-291-3009; dccrownbakery.com). “The Caribbean community has been really supportive of this business.”
With the demise of Brown’s and Rita’s in the past decade, Crown has assumed the status of elder statesman among Caribbean eateries. Selman and her husband, Trevor, are natives of Trinidad and Tobago. Their storefront specializes in Trini breads, pastries, roti, stews, curries and street foods, though Jennifer will be the first to tell you that Crown has also adopted some Jamaican staples to appease customers who might not realize they’ve set foot into a Trinidadian shop. She and her brother, head baker Wayne Dickonson, also have created pastries, such as a blueberry tart, for palates not yet ready for the tropical punch of their coconut-pineapple tart.
As much as I like Crown’s flaky currant rolls, its sweet-and-savory brown stew chicken and its macaroni pie (splashed with jus from the brown stew chicken!), I adore its Trini street foods, available only on Friday and Saturday. The snack known as doubles starts with fried bara flatbread — prepared in-house, like everything here — stuffed with curried chickpeas and topped with chadon beni (an herb sometimes called culantro) sauce, tamarind sauce and cucumber chutney. Your brainpan won’t know what hit it.
The bake and shark is even better: Fried fillets of shark are slipped into an inflated mini-loaf known as a fry bake, along with a scotch-bonnet pepper sauce and many of the same condiments as in the doubles. Jennifer doesn’t know what species Crown sources for the sandwich, but traditionally, Trini cooks rely on Atlantic blacktip shark, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers a “smart seafood choice.” If this is correct, I consider the bake and shark at Crown a brilliant seafood choice.
Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant (5329 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-291-2949; iamsunrise.com) occupies a storefront where Crown once conducted business before moving up the street. Sunrise owners Plaza and her husband, Selwyn Mungo, are justifiably proud of their dhalpuri roti, a traditional flatbread stuffed with yellow split peas, which are ground in-house and seasoned with jeera, the darkly toasted-and-powderized cumin seeds that distinguish Trini cuisine from others in the Caribbean. You can order the roti as a wrap, fattened with your choice of filling, but I like it straight, chased with one of the housemade drinks, whether the bracing sorrel-ginger or the milky peanut punch.
Plaza and Mungo specialize in vegan fare, including mock-meat versions of jerk chicken and brown stew chicken, both of which do a decent job of mimicking the flavors of the dishes. But if I want to go meatless here, I’ll order the buss-up shut, a butter-enriched variation of the housemade roti, and use the warm, tattered flatbread (said to resemble a “busted-up shirt”) to scoop up vegetarian sides, including a superb callaloo prepared with okra and pumpkin.
If you walk up and down Georgia Avenue on a sunny afternoon, you’ll eventually run into the regulars on the corner patio at Castello Jamaican Restaurant and Bar (5201 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-851-4879). They’re the ones who understand that life is meant to be enjoyed, even during a pandemic. They’ll be knocking back bottles of Heineken, their feet propped on the railing that separates the patio from the sidewalk. Some will be tearing into plates of curried chicken or escovitched fish prepared by head chef Dawnette Tucker, a native of Jamaica.
Tucker started at Castello in February, right after Maurice Grant, the guy behind Move and Groove, bought it from the previous owner. Tucker has put together an ambitious menu, packed with curries, jerk dishes and even breakfast options, a nice counterbalance to the handful of items available at Move and Groove. Tucker’s jerk chicken varies significantly from her boss’s, and not just because it’s prepared in the oven. Her bird is almost blackened. It’s also sweeter, rounder, more balanced, its heat the slow creeping kind. Her oxtail is a gelatinous offering, with bone-in pieces that make for good nibbling to extract every last, rich morsel. I would have enjoyed sampling more of Tucker’s cooking but I learned a secret late in the reporting process: She often leaves work at 6 p.m., and the staff remaining may not be able to execute her dishes.
David Nagar has been running Teddy’s Roti Shop (7304 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-882-6488) for 26 years, the last 12 years at his current location in a sunny storefront on Georgia Avenue. Teddy’s still makes the best goat roti in town, a stewy, turmeric-tinted filling of meat and vegetables swaddled in a wrap that adds an extra layer of richness to the dish. His buss up shut still delivers, too, the shredded flatbread serving as the perfect complement to curried chicken, beef, goat or even conch.
Even better, if you can’t wait for the weekend to try bake and shark or doubles at Crown, Teddy’s offers the Trini street fare seven days a week, with breads fried daily in the kitchen. But you have to wonder for how much longer? Nagar says he has one more year on his lease and his landlord has indicated he will renew the contract only on a year-to-year basis. Developers have been itching to get their hands on more property along Teddy’s block, which is next to the massive redevelopment of the former Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Personally, Nagar wouldn’t mind relocating to the proposed Town Center inside the Parks at Walter Reed.
“They’re saying that they are looking at the people on our block” as potential tenants, Nagar says.
The beauty of that move, of course, is that Nagar and Teddy’s would remain on Georgia Avenue, where Caribbeans have long felt at home in Washington.