Jamrock Cultural Restaurant, Superior, Wis.
When you walk into Jamrock’s small restaurant you will be assailed by glorious smells that you immediately begin to try to sort out and identify. Meanwhile, you will be taking in the island atmosphere of music and decor. At the counter you will find on display a photograph of chef and owner Tony O’Neil’s grandmother from her going home service, and bookended to that is an Anthony Bourdain cookbook—all clues to what lies behind O’Neil’s very popular Caribbean-infused style of cooking.
O’Neil was born in Miami, Fla. and raised in Jamaica. His grandparents owned a restaurant in Jamaica before moving to the United States, and he learned to cook from his grandmother when he was a kid. Now he is a certified chef with the American Culinary Federation and sells jerk chicken and other Jamaican classics, as well as Caribbean-American fusion dishes at Jamrock.
“Cooking at the restaurant is a way to keep family tradition alive,” says O’Neil. “It’s a place to escape, it’s what grandmother did and how I stay connected to her.”
The Bourdain cookbook pays homage to one of O’Neil’s favorite chefs. O’Neil says he admires him because, “Bourdain was a master chef that traveled the world, experienced different cultures, and gave everybody a chance.”
O’Neil says that his Caribbean-infusion style cooking at Jamrock “takes a lot of what you will find in the islands, and infuses it with the dishes that Minnesotans are used to.” It is a personal art that is working well for him, as he sells out every night.
Case-in-point are his braised-short rib quesadillas served with grilled pineapple salsa and a side of Panamanian beans. The grilled pineapple adds a sweet reminder of tropical climes, and the fusion of Mexican-South American, along with bulgogi seasoned ribs, a Korean-style barbeque flavor, makes perfect sense when you are talking Caribbean cooking.
Jamaica, and all the other Caribbean islands, have been a stopping point for many cultures, with opportunities to be influenced by African, Creole, Cajun, Amerindian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and other cuisines.
So, it’s no surprise when you find Jamrock mixing it up with smoked Gouda mac-n-cheese, jerk chicken loaded french fries, or red snapper with collard greens and cornbread. Or, you might find, the dish of the day is a “gigantic burrito, stuffed and smothered, with your choice of jerk chicken, or jerk beef brisket.” Also keep your eyes open for “jerk lobster and deep-fried coconut shrimp pineapple bowls with a pineapple pico served in a pineapple bowl.”
Originally O’Neil came north to play football for the University of North Dakota, eventually finding his way to the Twin Ports. Then, three years ago he was laid off from his railroad job and immediately turned to his cooking experience to support his young family.
“We’ve built some momentum over the last three years,” said O’Neil, who is characteristically understated in just about everything he talks about.
Now, O’Neil says, the northland is so enthusiastic about his cooking that he has no intention of “going back to the other job.” Pushing for 100 takeout orders a day at dinnertime, O’Neil is keen on the idea that he is providing meals for working class families like his own.
“We limit what we do and it works for us. We work for the people who don’t have time to cook a meal for their family, but they want to pick up something that is worth their money,” said O’Neil.
Freedom to do what he wants, not just as his own boss, but in how he cooks is a running theme for O’Neil, who says he “just doesn’t want to be stuck, we do what we want” when the inspiration strikes. That translates into a limited menu that is made by the week, allowing him to adapt to not only what ingredients are available, but also what mood strikes him as he is creating.
Offering just a few menu options a day, and sometimes just one depending on prep time necessary to create the meal he envisions, O’Neil says Jamrock’s most requested menu item is their seafood boil. Dependent on what fresh seafood can be brought in, servings of shrimp, crab, crawfish, Andouille sausage along with potatoes, corn, eggs and amazing seasonings go like hotcakes when he posts it on the menu.
The Real Jamaican Jerk, Thunder Bay
Odette and Douglas Chin are the owners of The Real Jamaican Jerk, a restaurant that has been growing in popularity over the last three years. From Jamaica to the UK and now Canada, Douglas says that there is perhaps a surprising home audience for their specialty foods, which includes their best-seller: oxtail.
The menu that includes signature jerk chicken, curry goat, and fried plantain is “actually pretty popular; there are quite a few Jamaicans here that you would not necessarily recognize,” said Douglas, adding, “Our most popular dish is our most expensive—our specialty oxtail moves as fast as anything and has a particular flavor that most people enjoy.”
Ted’s Kitchen, Thunder Bay
Serving up spicy and warming dishes to Thunder Bay for over a decade, the new Ted’s Kitchen recently moved to bigger quarters to keep up with their many hungry fans. Soup and jerk pork patties, available in spicy or mild, are customer favorites. Ted’s patties are jerked meat wrapped in a crust, similar in form to the pasties of the Iron Range, but with an island flavor. Ted keeps his menu simple, with a “build-your-own” meal choosing from jerked chicken or pork, over rice and peas, with a side of homemade hot sauce.