Ricardo Blake is not having it with your jerk egg rolls.
“We don’t wanna do jerk pizza,” he says. “I just want to be authentic. I want to be outstanding. You gonna go to a Jamaican restaurant, you look for oxtails, curry goat, jerk chicken. We don’t want jerk pasta.”
That’s what the chef told me when I asked him why he doesn’t have a jerk egg roll on the menus at any of his three St. Bess Jerk outposts, three seeds of a nascent empire trafficking in classic Jamaican food, and a few trending mashups.
Jerk, both the method and the seasoning, is perhaps one of the first regional barbecue styles, the indigenous Caribbean Taíno having taught escaped African slaves—Maroons—the process of roasting meats low and slow over native wood. In that case it was pimento, which also provided the allspice that, along with scotch bonnet peppers, evolved into the signature warmly spiced, smoky flavors it’s known for.
Blake grew up in his mother’s restaurants in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, and is steeped in this tradition. He’s unimpressed by the jerk taco revolution that swept the south and west sides of Chicago in the last few years. Though he has allowed jerk chicken, shrimp, and catfish tacos on his menus, that isn’t what he’s making his name on.
Blake came to Chicago 13 years ago and started cooking a similar lineup of scratch dishes at Auburn Gresham’s Jamaican Jerk Villa, and then at the near-southside Jerk Villa Bar & Grill.But in June during high pandemic, he struck out on his own, opening the first St. Bess (named for home), a takeout-only joint in a Burbank strip mall.
I didn’t hear about it until October, when it started catching my eye on Instagram. That’s when Exclusive773 impresario Steve Wazwaz, who was looking for a dependable caterer to work his charity events, was impressed enough that he bought in, taking over marketing. Business took off thanks in part to his significant social media presence, but certainly due to Blake’s commitment to cooking entirely from scratch.
That’s particularly evident in the half birds roasted in a barrel smoker over live coals until Blake’s sweet and slowly piercing marinade is married to the smoke. The smell of it makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else, but seafood jerk plates, along with his more stewy dishes, are just as compelling: jiggling oxtails, chunks of meaty goat, brown stewed chicken, all practically melting into the background of a bed of sauce-soaked rice. A focused lineup of sides—say creamy mac and cheese, or soft, almost caramelized cabbage—beg to jump in, adding their own textures.
Blake opened his second location in Norwood Park in a former burger joint at the thrumming intersection of Northwest Highway and Nagle, just north of Bryn Mawr and I-90. With a handful of tables and a surrounding parking lot, it seems perfectly situated to dominate a vast jerk-less frontier on the far northwest side.
But Blake isn’t stopping there. Earlier this month he opened his third spot in Norwich, Connecticut, with his childhood best friend, and he’s shooting for two more Chicago-area locations before the year is out. (I think I made a strong case for Albany Park.)
Blake envisions a national presence, but for now he and Wazwaz seem to have different ideas about the best way to grow. Wazwaz wants to see a built-out bar-and-grill-type model: “I feel like one big headache is better than five small headaches,” he says.
Blake wants to focus on carryout, but he will allow that in a bigger spot he might entertain the possibility of offering some of jerk’s more contemporary descendants. But egg rolls and rasta pasta just don’t seem like they’re in his blood.
“I don’t want to follow what people are doing.” v