Only two things are required to achieve the temporary nirvana known as “vacation mode,” and those are 1) a change in physical location and 2) a change in mental state. It’s a little-known life hack that with the correct set of signifiers, one can willfully trigger vacation mode at almost any time and in almost any place.
For instance, dinnertime on a weekday in Belltown.
Even in its name, Jerk Shack, the Caribbean restaurant on 1st Avenue that opened late last year, tilts toward reverie. Its squat concrete construction is not particularly shack-ish, but images of a small sanctuary and focused menu set an expectation of humble comfort. Inside, insistently upbeat dancehall music sinuates from the sound system and tropical color washes the walls, which are further decked with intriguing artwork and the word JERK spelled out in floral fresco. A dark wood bar occupies one entire side of the place. Smiles shine from the staff, who greet our party enthusiastically from behind the bar. I issue a standard “Fine, how are you?” and a bartender effuses “Feeling blessed!” and together we all take a collective step away from default reality.
Further still, to the patio. A refrigerator-sized smoker, currently dormant, sits front and center, radiating potential flavor. Two large men tilt beers and slap dominoes at a raised table while a group of women sip Crayola-colored cocktails in tall glasses. A leafy, café light-strung trellis blots the half-finished high-rises looming overhead. From outdoor speakers, more dancehall. Servers pace themselves with an attention to detail that’s not so much fastidious as gently affectionate. The air is charged with joy, but also restful. Surely this is just a patio off an alley in a familiar neighborhood of Seattle, but the specific combination of unusual sounds, smells and visuals plus the anticipation of a specific kind of meal unbutton the sense of usual business.
“That’s what we’re after,” Trey Lamont, Jerk Shack’s owner and head chef, tells me later over the phone. “I want Jerk Shack to be the food of the sun. When you walk through the doors you feel like you’re teleported to a place in the Caribbean.”
In an age of restaurantism where chefs are both rock stars and philosopher-kings, where dining out is entertainment as much as education, where technique is a science and an art, Lamont embodies the whole equation. In one breath he tells me that he chooses the restaurant’s soundtrack much like a DJ reads a dance floor (on this particular gloomy day, he says, he’d opt for “funky old soul, maybe Raphael Saadiq, not too fast, not too slow”) and in the next describes the pathways by which the Atlantic slave trade brought Caribbean flavors and techniques to port cities in the American south—the original soul food.
“If you get invited to someone’s house in the Caribbean they’ll treat you like family automatically,” he says. “People say that’s Southern hospitality, but where do you think that came from? How much more Southern can you get than the Caribbean?”
Born and raised in Seattle, Lamont learned to cook as a teenager in the kitchen of Wild Ginger and later at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Frequent trips to visit friends in the Caribbean introduced him to its various cuisines—cuisine he found sorely lacking back home. In 2011, he opened Papa Bois, a Caribbean-fusion food truck which he still operates today at roving locations around the city. Every item at the restaurant was first vetted as a food-truck special. But the star of the show here isn’t available anywhere else.
Jerk Shack’s jerk fried chicken is the most exceptional dish I’ve eaten in Seattle this year. It’s Lamont’s singular creation, a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention variant on traditional jerk technique, which requires pimento wood for both constructing a grilling rack and for burning as cooking fuel. Pimento, an evergreen shrub related to the bay laurel, is common in the tropics but hard to find in northerly climes, so Lamont explored options other than smoking his birds. Papa Bois offers his original grilled jerk chicken, and it’s good. But it took a single trial run in the deep fryer for Lamont to know he’d leveled up.
Lamont’s secret jerk spice mélange coats the outside, resulting in a crisp, piquant bark that’s lighter and more flavorful than standard flour- or panko-battered fried chicken. This renders his chicken nothing short of a delicacy. He lists the ingredients common to jerk seasoning like pimento berry (which is also known as allspice and is “the key to jerk,” per Lamont), coriander, cumin and thyme; they’re all in there. Usually included is scotch bonnet pepper, also common in the islands and not so much in Seattle, so he uses habanero instead. Other stuff he won’t divulge.
His jerk is a dry rub, not a marinade, as is commonly found in stores. Crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside, spicy with the humid, whole-mouth heat that only jerk spice can provide. Each half-chicken—easily enough for two people—is served on a paddle-shaped wood cutting board, regal and rustic at the same time.
Served alongside are pistachio rice, aromatic and hearty, and fried plantains. Other sides are delicious in their own right, including a jerk mac and cheese with an intoxicating, roux-like richness, and black beans swimming with smoked pork and andouille. Sweet potato corn bread, smeared with soft ginger-jalapeno-lime-honey butter (!), goes down like dessert.
Beverage-wise, cocktails are rum-forward and stiff. The old-school Corn and Oil is made with black strap rum, lime juice and falernum, a ginger-and-almond liqueur endemic to the Caribbean. The Vincey Rum Punch, pink like a sunset, balances pineapple-juicy sweetness with a dusting of fresh-grated nutmeg. The Caribbean Goddess is almost smoothie-heavy with coconut milk.
But that jerk fried chicken. One dining companion, a world-traveling epicure, said it was the first food he’s been excited about in a very long time. Indeed. Days afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Weeks later I returned to the restaurant and, out of professional obligation, opted for Lamont’s jerk lobster. It was succulent, sweet, spicy, redolent of briny sea, piquant spice, earthy char. It provided the same minor-miraculous effect: whisked away on a weekday. Last time I ate a Caribbean lobster—clawless, all tail—it was plucked from a Bahamian reef and handed to me to drop in a pot of boiling water. Breakfast on my brother’s sailboat, spring of 1999. Before Jerk Shack I hadn’t thought about that meal in years.
2510 1st Ave.