Even before I took my first bite at Just Jerk, I had a semi-irrational premonition about this Jamaican takeout joint in Lanham. The omen, you could say, was written in the sky.
Billowing from a big metal exhaust vent atop the building — itself painted in vibrant shades of green and yellow to summon the tropical verdancy of Jamaica — was the source of my growing affection: vast amounts of smoke. The huff and puff of vented smoke filled the air — and filled me with hope that Just Jerk might actually grill its birds, unlike so many shacks satisfied to serve up plates of baked jerk chicken. Was it beyond the pale to think the place might even use the traditional pimento wood for its grill?
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.
Ajaj and Stone originally envisioned their operation as a recording studio, carved out of the basement of their building, with the upstairs kitchen serving as a kind of commissary for the visiting musicians downstairs. Just Jerk’s customers had other thoughts, however, and the two reggaemen find themselves locked into a restaurateur’s life.
I might have more sympathy for the pair if they hadn’t created one of the best jerk shacks in the area, so sought after that the place regularly runs out of chicken before day’s end. Leon Bent is the chef here; he mans the long, flat grill, charring marinated chickens under upside-down baking sheets, which trap moisture and keep the birds juicy. He also makes sure to follow Ajaj and Stone’s original recipe for jerk sauce, a lush, fragrant gravy that balances a midgrade Scotch-bonnet burn with sweet herbs and spices. The sauce serves as the Jenny Everywhere of Just Jerk: It performs many different roles. It’s slathered on chicken, on salmon (whose flinty fish flavor proves an excellent foil to the heat and spice) and even on a portobello mushroom (a giant specimen whose typical meatiness actually feels subdued by the sauce).
The kitchen demonstrates care with virtually everything on its menu — at least everything produced in-house, particularly the fried and caramelized plantains, sweet and slightly chewy. (The spinach, chicken and beef patties are outsourced, and while their fillings are superior, their shells can be cardboard-y.) If you plan to venture away from the jerk chicken, I’d suggest the curry chicken, a plate of white and bone-in dark meat coated in a sly, savory marinade that smacks of allspice and garlic.
But, really, there’s only one reason to avoid the jerk chicken, and that’s the heat source. Ajaj says he tried to secure pimento wood but found it prohibitively expensive. He uses lump charcoal instead, which purists will argue immediately disqualifies Ajaj’s chicken for jerk status. Maybe that’s true, but I’d argue you’d be a jerk to pass up this chicken on those grounds alone.
9005 Lanham Severn Rd., Lanham. 301-459-5375.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Nearest Metro: New Carrollton, with a 1.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Entree prices: $3.95-$14.95.