I've had my share of so-called Jamaican jerk chicken over the years.
Many times restaurants trot out chicken rubbed with any kind of spicy seasoning and call it jerk even though it isn't even close.
Willie Ivy is pretty honest about the jerk seasoning he uses at Ivy's Jerk Joint on South Clinton Street. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he's lived much of his life here in Fort Wayne, so he doesn't swear by its authenticity. But he is passionate about it.
He fell in love with jerk so much that he and his wife, Umekia, honeymooned in Jamaica just so he could investigate. And he – and one of his Jamaican employees – thinks his fiery blend is spot on.
I am not about to tell you what an authentic jerk seasoning is, but I will tell you whatever Ivy is putting on his food is fantastic.
And it is hot. Everything at the Jerk Joint was hot, right down to the pasta salad.
If you do not like spicy food, this isn't the place for you. I did find a couple of tasty mild dishes, but this place is about bringing the heat.
All of the food seasoned with his signature blend also had a lot of flavor. It is not just hot. There is a little garlic and onion, and a touch of freshness from lime juice and scallions. The rub truly accentuated the food just as much as it added heat.
The best jerk item I had at Ivy's was also the most innovative. I had never had turkey ribs, and they are not actually ribs. They come from the back of the bird, are about the size of a baby back rib and have a bone about the size of a baby back, too. And they were tender, juicy and fell off the bone with ease.
I slathered mine with Ivy's sweet barbecue sauce, which helped tame the heat. They also offer a jerk-infused hot sauce on the side, but there is no way I needed more of it.
The turkey tips, tender bits of dark meat from the thigh, were also great and they had no bones, so you might find them less complicated to devour.
The regular chicken, as expected, was also top-notch. I asked to have mine chopped – they usually serve the pieces whole – so it was easier to eat given the utensils are plastic at this takeout-heavy restaurant.
There are a few tables and a counter, but it really is more of a carry-out place.
The chicken was moist and tender, and I really could not find fault with it.
I liked Ivy's grilled wings even better. These whole wings picked up more smoky char from the grill and added another layer of flavor in addition to the jerk.
I didn't expect to even try a salad at Ivy's, but there were several of them going out the door during my visits and I soon found out why. My jerk shrimp salad was huge and had a large portion of the little spicy-sweet shrimp, along with boiled egg, cheese, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
It was also beautifully segmented with each ingredient in rows of the takeout box so I could mix it up to my liking.
The egg, cheese and sweet little tomatoes helped tame the spice and, when mixed, the salad didn't really need dressing at all – though a little ranch didn't hurt. It was a fabulous salad and all of the vegetables were fresh, clean and crunchy.
I got excited when I saw curried goat on a flyer taped to the order window. My excitement grew as I tasted the tender bone-in chunks of this rarely found delicacy. The yellow curry was very mild compared to the jerk, and the stewed meat joined with potatoes and served over rice was about as good as it gets.
It was tame enough in terms of spice that I was able to fool my 9-year-old daughter into gobbling it down after fibbing and telling her it was beef.
When I told her what it really was, she didn't bat an eye.
“That's what I want to get next time, too,” she said.
Another rarely seen dish, oxtails, were also fall-off-the-bone tender, and they were quite mild as they, too, were devoid of jerk seasoning. They were classically slow-cooked with red peppers, potatoes and butter beans and had a comfort-food quality to them I really liked. But there was less bang for your buck given the scarcity of meat on the bones.
The rib tips had plenty of meat on them and were smoked in addition to having the jerk. The tips and baby back ribs, Ivy said, are the only things he smokes. I again used the mild sauce on these fatty, delicious nuggets and loved how the smoky flavor came through with all of the spice.
Given he wanted his place to be a true Jamaican spot, Ivy also had to offer Jamaican patties.
The spicy ground beef wrapped in puff pastry was not made from scratch, but the patties tasted great. The only flaw was that wrapping them up and putting them in a foam box caused them to steam a bit so the pastry got a bit soggy.
I did not get to try many of the sides because the Jerk Joint was out of them. The Rasta Pasta, that pasta salad I mentioned earlier, was way too spicy for me. The Jerk Chicken Dirty Rice, the only other side available during all of my visits, was better, but still pretty fiery. It had pieces of jerk chicken that flavored its broth nicely.
Ivy doesn't like having to tell people they are out of anything, and when I wanted to try the plantains for dessert and was told they were out because the holding tray was empty, he quickly grabbed a couple of them and headed straight to the fryer. I am glad he did because they were perfect – fried until a little brown, but soft and sweet like pudding.
He also says he is the only one offering Jamaican sodas and Jamaican hard dough.
The dense sliced bread was delicious and needed no butter or condiment to dress it up. It reminded me of good sourdough, and I loved using it to soak up some of the juice drippings from the jerk meats.
The sodas come in many flavors and can be found in a cooler in the dining area. All of Jerk Joint's drinks can be found there, including bottled water, regular sodas and juice bottles for kids.
He had to have drinks for the kids because this place is not just a love affair for him and Umekia, it is a family affair where his little ones spend some time there “helping.”
If it wasn't for that support, Ivy said, he would have never opened.
“I literally started selling it on the street,” he said of his jerked chicken.
Soon after, a mobile unit went up in the parking lot of his barber shop. As business boomed, he knew he had to try a brick and mortar.
I, for one, am glad he did, and I will be going back soon. But I will make sure to buy more than one of those Jamaican sodas to battle the intoxicating spices.
Restaurant: Ivy's Jerk Joint
Address: 2836 S. Clinton St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: chicken ($8.99 half; $15.99 whole), wings ($4.99 for 4; $6.99 for 6; $10.99 for 10), shrimp salad ($8.99 small; $13.99 large), turkey tips ($8.99 small; $15.99 large), turkey ribs ($7.99 small; $9.99 large), rib tips ($13.99), goat ($9.99), oxtail dinner ($14.99), patties ($2.99), dirty rice ($3 small; $5 large), Rasta Pasta ($2 small; $4 large), plantains (99 cents)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Ivy's Jerk Joint
Out of a possible five