J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop offers an authentic street food experience on Saturdays and Sundays in the heart of downtown Damariscotta.
“It’s authentic,” said Randal Souviney, 74, of San Diego, Calif., who was visiting family and stopped to grab a bite on Sunday, Oct. 17. “It adds to the palate of the town.”
Souviney grew up in Dresden and used to play in a band called the Skavengers at the Merry Barn in Edgecomb when he was young. He said his fellow band mates would also have enjoyed the authentic Jamaican food.
Located at 88 Main St., the grocery store installed an outdoor deck for people to sit and eat. The deck is painted in bright red, yellow, and green colors. About 10 to 15 people came through on Sunday afternoon to grab some food during the 45 minutes or so I was there.
The menu for Sunday included jerk chicken, jerk pork, curried chicken, brown stewed fish, and red pea soup with corn and chicken. Each meal came with a side of rice and peas, sautéed vegetables, and ripe fried plantains.
When I ordered jerk chicken on Sunday, co-owner Peter Ebanks made the walk to the smoker to collect the chicken and described the history of jerk cooking along the way.
Ebanks said that the traditional jerk seasoning and cooking method originated in Jamaica in the 17th century when runaway slaves would catch wild pigs and then bury them in the ground with hot coal and rocks to cook along with the jerk spices.
This was done, he said, to hide the smoke so as not to alert the authorities or plantation owners to the slaves’ whereabouts.
The main ingredients of the jerk marinade are allspice, thyme, and Scotch Bonnet peppers, which provide a spicy kick to the dish.
Ebanks said he cooks the chicken for about three hours at a temperature between 100 and 150 degrees. He keeps the chicken in a tin foil pan inside the smoker so it doesn’t dry out. The pork is cooked for about six hours.
The 2,000-pound smoker has the capacity to cook up to 100 pieces of chicken at one time, which Ebanks has done.
The jerk chicken was deliciously juicy and the meat and the skin fell right off the bone with no effort. The jerk seasoning is a little spicy, which I enjoyed. It had just the right amount of heat to clear out the sinuses and create a pleasant tingle in the mouth.
If one is sensitive to spicy foods, the red pea soup may be a better option.
For $18, any meal is a fairly good deal because the portions are enormous and each order comes with all three sides. Ebanks basically filled a large to-go container to the brim with all the tasty foods.
I was able to make my leftovers last for two more filling meals over two days.
All this food is washed down nicely with a uniquely flavored Ting, the refreshing Jamaican grapefruit soda that is available in the grocery store.
I tried fried plantains for the first time, which I thought I would love. There was something about the crispy exterior and mushy interior that didn’t quite jive with my taste buds or mouth-feel though.
When I reheated the plantains on my cast iron pan at home, however, the mushiness sort of disappeared and I really enjoyed the surprising sweetness inside the fried exterior.
The side of vegetables includes green beans, carrots, cabbage, onions, scallions, and garlic. Ebanks said that because of the soil in Jamaica, scallions that are grown there have a unique taste.
Ebanks said that J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop was originally only going to sell grocery items, not ready-to-eat food. However, after several requests for prepared food, he decided to seek approval from the town for his smoker.
The smoker had to be moved from the deck to the back of the parking lot because of fire code violations after it was originally approved by the Damariscotta Planning Board, according to Damariscotta’s former Code Enforcement Officer Stanley Waltz.
The shop has been busy since firing up the smoker in late August, especially during the first weekend of Damariscotta Pumpkinfest, Oct. 8-10, which had Ebanks smoking meat practically non-stop to keep up with demand.
For more information, call 563-6652 or visit J & J Jamaican Grocery and Gift Shop’s Facebook page.