Brixton and jerk chicken go together. Despite all the changes that are taking place in what’s available to eat in Brixton, it still has more places serving West Indian food that any other type. For almost all of them, the signature dish is jerk chicken. But which one serves the most authentic and the best?
Answering the question is bound to be controversial; everyone who is into jerk chicken has their favourite. So we decided that we had to try them all, or at least those that specialise in takeaways. There are, of course, a few proper sit down places that also serve jerk chicken – see, for example our reviews of: Bamboula; Fish, Wings and Tings; Negril; and Veranda – but in our mind it is more enjoyable as a takeaway. One of the eatinbrixton team has lunch in Brixton most days and, over the last couple of years, he has been enjoying himself giving all the jerk chicken joints in central Brixton a try.
This research led to a shortlist of six and then, to ensure an independent view of which was the best, we invited friends and family to a blind tasting. There were nine of us round the table, with ages ranging from 24 to 81, and, it worked surprisingly well, although pedants might argue that the amount of Red Stripe that was consumed will have affected the results as the evening wore on.
We kept the shortlist to six because it was a manageable number and the choice, to some extent, was bound to be arbitrary. Our apologies to anyone who’s favourite was left out, but Norma, our expert advisor whose family come from Jamaica, agreed it was a fair selection. The shortlist was as follows:
- Bickles, 423 Coldharbour Lane
- Black & White Cafe, 75 Atlantic Road
- Bushman, Brixton Station Road (under the steps to the Recreation Centre)
- Jeff the Chef, Brixton Station Road (stall on the corner of Popes Road)
- Refill, 500A Brixton Road (actually round the corner in Brighton Terrace)
- Ultimate Jerk Chicken, 397 Coldharbour Lane
To eliminate the risk of any bias, everyone had to try a bit from each restaurant and give them a rating out of ten. We are happy to report that they were all good enough to justify their place on the shortlist. All of them are also inexpensive, although we do find that the pricing and portion control are opaque. We went for large portions and for that you can typically expect to pay around £6, including the accompanying rice and peas, but all of these places offer smaller and cheaper options. And for the more expensive option you really do get lots of rice and peas, so there was no risk of anyone going hungry. We only had three portions of rice and peas between the nine of us and there was still some left over at the end of the meal, even after serving curried goat, fried plantain and callaloo.
Our conclusion was that you will probably enjoy a meal from any of these places. But the stand out favourite was Refill. Their chicken had a good amount of heat and that authentic barbecued/smoky taste. It’s worth noting, however, that none of the portions were especially hot. The taste was good but there was nowhere like the heat of the super-spicy home-cooked jerk chicken that Lloyd used to give us, when he was our neighbour. This was great although after eating some it often took a while for the digestion to revert to normal functioning.
To the disappointment of our researcher, Black & White Cafe was the least liked, although it was still acceptable. In his explorations of West Indian food in Brixton, he had been impressed with their cooking. But this does illustrate a flaw in trying to choose the best jerk chicken based on a single tasting – the quality of what you get does vary from day to day and this wasn’t such a good day for them.
There is another problem. Given the strength of jerk seasoning, what the chicken tastes like isn’t so important. But when we buy chicken to cook for ourselves, we’re particular about where it comes from and how it’s been farmed. None of these places tell you where they source their chicken and you don’t really get a choice. And, given that all of them are trying to keep it cheap, the likelihood is that the chicken will be cheap as well.
If you think this is a problem, the answer is to buy and to cook it yourself, ideally with a home smoker. But even without, you can get a good result using the readymade sauces available in many of the shops in Brixton. Following advice we use the ‘hot and spicy’ version of Walkerswood traditional Jamaican jerk seasoning. It truly is hot. To provide a comparison we used it to cook our own jerk chicken and then served it at the end of the blind tasting. The view, at least among those who could cope with how hot it was, was that our home cooked version was as good or even better than the takeaways.
Our advice is to try any of these places and see which one hits the spot for you. The food will be tasty and filling, as well as being cheap. There is no doubt that despite all the changes that are taking place, West Indian food is alive and well in Brixton.