Yup, Thornton Heath. Look it up.
While the rest of the food world had their eyes on which restaurants would make it into the World’s 50 Best last night, I was schlepping down to a crumbling takeaway in Zone 4 to get me some jerk chicken. I spend much of my time schlepping around London to taste jerk pork or chicken, come to think of it; either that, or I’m sitting in the corner of a darkened room, rocking and weeping gently, mourning the loss of some of London’s greats. The Jerk Cookout for example (RIP) was one of the best food events ever created, in my eyes, but it stopped a couple of years ago when they (apparently) couldn’t get any sponsorship; to be honest the event was getting too big by that point anyway and thus the quality of stalls diluted until it ended up as just a representation of the state of jerk in London in one place (loads of shit places, very few good ones), rather than a gathering of the very best. The other great loss was Caribbean Spice Jerk Centre next to Peckham Rye station (RIP). That place got taken over by new management who clearly couldn’t care less; when I walked past last night the place was empty. I cry.
And so the search continues. Now I knew Tasty Jerk was going to be good because they won the Jerk Cookout two (or was it three?) times in a row, before they were told they couldn’t win any more because it wasn’t fair to the other contestants. I say: if you’re the best, you’re the best, end of. Anyway, they have branches in spectacularly inconvenient places, those places being: Thornton Heath, Croydon and er, Ghana. So Thornton Heath it was.
We could smell the food cooking from a significant distance. I’d been warned that the place was ‘grotty’ which of course meant that when I entered I immediately fell in love with it. The back wall is basically lined with jerk drums and a massive extractor fan which does try to suck up some of the smoke but fails for the most part, leaving our clothes and hair infused. I’m not wearing the same coat I wore last night. Cooking good jerk is very much about getting a lot of smoke going on, you see. Of course the spicing is important, but a lot of places fall down on the cooking method. Tasty Jerk have it nailed. Here’s a really crap photo that’s out of focus but nevertheless gives an idea of the smoke levels…
A jerk meal will typically come with your chosen meat, plus rice and peas and hot sauce (you should always add the hot sauce). The meal is all about balance; this might sound obvious but the components should not be judged separately. It’s also very much about the build. I want a steady increase of heat and allspice, not a punch in the mouth. I want moisture from the rice and peas. Always ask for gravy on those. Tasty Jerk offered gravy without me having to ask which impressed me and in fact, their rice and peas were excellent; good gooey texture hanging on the right side of stodgy, bit of yellow pepper going on in there for sweetness. Generous with the beans. Their hot sauce deserves special mention too as it was pure searing bonnet fruit balanced with a shedload of sugar that made for a terribly addictive cycle of consumption which ended up with me in tears. The method of dealing with this by the way is, in case you don’t know, Guinness punch.
Tasty Jerk are making some of the best jerk in London right now, along with Smokey Jerkey in New Cross. It’s always the glamorous locations, see? Okay so perhaps none of you care enough about a good jerk pork meal to rattle down to Thornton Heath on an empty train for which you actually have to buy a special ticket. I can understand. For me, that’s what I’m calling a good Monday night. While chefs and food glitterati were sipping champagne and waiting to hear whether or not Noma had won the title of world’s best restaurant yet again (it did), I was drinking warm gin and tonic from a can, on a train. I was uncomfortably full, I stank of jerk smoke and I was in the middle of effing nowhere. I also couldn’t have been happier.
Tasty Jerk Centre (for other locations website here)
88 Whitehorse Lane
Tel: 0208 653 3222