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Lila Kalick: So what's the deal with the Jamaican Jerk Pit?

BY LILA KALICK
Daily Local Cuisine Columnist
Published November 3, 2010

You’re curious. I’m curious. We’re all curious.

What is the deal with the Jamaican Jerk Pit on N. Thayer Street across from Hill Auditorium? Is it even open?

What made me hesitant about entering was its exterior. Posters obscure prying eyes from peeking at what’s going down inside. Scenes of whitewater rafting, beaches and famous Jamaican athletes taped to the inside of the windows are more indicative of a travel agency than a restaurant.

Looking through the glass front door, you’ll find there is never anyone behind the receptionist counter or sitting at the tables. The lights are always off in the middle of the day. All these aspects come together to create an air of mystery too thick to crack from the outside.

I’ve wondered about the Jamaican Jerk Pit for the last three years. Every once in a while after class on my way to State Street, I’ve walked by, each time more timid to enter than the last. Finally, I got up my courage. I pushed past the sketchy entrance and followed the sign indicating to go downstairs.

What I found surprised and delighted me. The Jamaican Jerk Pit offers a timeless, stress-free experience, guaranteed to help you chill out. Its basement location makes it the perfect tropical oasis, uninterrupted by the invasion of any glimpse of the overcast gray sky outside.

The ebullient interior of the downstairs dining room erodes any tension experienced from the vacancy of the first floor. The bright yellow walls are trimmed with red and green accents. A large JVC TV sits in the corner next to the counter where the chef places the orders. Perfect for watching important games, it emphasizes the restaurant’s beach-shack appeal.

Red plastic flowers sit in simple glass vases at the edges of the booths and tables. The napkin holders hold no napkins, but instead offer an assortment of light reading. Titles include “The Outhouse Book,” “How to Make People Think You’re Normal” and a guide to Jamaican medicinal herbs. Are you chilled out yet?

A few more tributes to Jamaica seal the deal. The large glass display case carries an assortment of coconut-covered desserts and imported beverages. A sign in the corner next to the gigantic stainless steel grill reminds you that there is “No Ganja Smoking,” because clearly the vibe is so relaxed that one may be tempted to get a little lifted.

Large conch shells and an empty Red Stripe bottle serve as decorations in the large basement window where the heater is. They are shyly shielded by delicate twine-link chains hanging from a curtain rod and mirrored on the other side of the room by a beaded curtain featuring a picture of, who else, Bob Marley.

In terms of cuisine, the Jamaican Jerk Pit’s fare is jammin’. The restaurant offers an assortment of Jamaican and Caribbean classics with a few exotic choices for more adventurous members of its Ann Arbor clientele. Oxtail and curried goat are two of the more exploratory selections not for the faint of heart.

The jerk chicken is the signature dish and can be ordered at three different levels of spice: mild, medium or hot. It comes in the form of an entrée, sandwich or salad to fit what you’re craving. I encourage you to go for the spicy — it’s not too hot to handle and the flavors really come out strong.

If you want a little bit of everything try the sampler plate. It includes plantains, jerk chicken wings, coconut shrimp and oxtail accompanied by respectively sweet and tangy piña colada- and Southwestern-flavored dipping sauces. Sauces are key!

Other offerings include an assortment of salads, sandwiches, appetizers and desserts, each with its own Caribbean panache. Festivals, fried pieces of sweetened cornmeal similar to hush puppies, are the perfect supplement to any meal. If you get thirsty, the full menu fruit smoothies or tropical juices, playfully labeled “Cool Runnings,” should do the trick.

Sometimes, especially in the wintertime when it's two degrees outside and your jacket just isn’t cutting it, all you want to do is sit on a beach and sip a tropical drink. It’s just not possible … until now. Could it be the place “where you wanna go to get away from it all?” Is the Jamaican Jerk Pit your Kokomo? Yes. The Jamaican Jerk Pit is Ann Arbor’s island getaway. Get there fast, then take it slow.