Jerk Junction has been around since 2013 but when Jake took over the restaurant 1.5 years ago, their progress and growth have been clear to see: from their epic rebrand, to their expanded outdoor cabin seating with neon feature wall – all in the name of feel-good food. It’s fair to say that they’ve claimed the corner of Manchester and Woodside Road with music, the most mouth- watering smells, and always a warm, community vibe. I chatted to Miss Lola, who’s been running the kitchen alongside Miss Ivy for years before the change in ownership; if anyone knows what’s up, it’s this doyenne. She tells me why Jerk Junction is always a party, and we talk nose-to-tail eating, growing up in Jamaica, and what makes JJ’s food the most unapologetically authentic Jamaican joint.
“At the end of the day, the secret is in your seasoning. We love food, we love getting together and eating – that’s the thing about Caribbeans.
You’ve got to have the right seasoning and cook it for long enough. Take our rice, you can’t just cook it in half an hour and you can’t just cook it from a tin.”
Now, if I could only relay to you the absolute horror on Miss Lola’s face when I tell her about Tilda’s Caribbean packets of microwaveable rice…
Then, to the kitchen, where Miss Lola runs the show, stirring as she goes – and hot damn, kittens, is it an immersive experience: the herby, homely smells from the huge bubbling pots of rice and peas, her jerk gravy (an ode to this later) and Scotch. Bonnets. Everywhere. Plant-based eaters will be thrilled to know Miss Lola is working on her famous stew peas recipe, but vegetarian-like, and they do offer vegan stew on the menu. We also stop to admire the homemade dough being worked, knowing it’ll be fried into the most delicious fluffy dumplings, or spinners, with a sweet, crisp outer shell. We know size doesn’t matter but these are MASSIVE, like biting into an apple but a much more rewarding experience.
We first try the curried goat, and I already know it’s going to be an emotional experience just looking at the bowl, with its deep colour and fragrant steam. It’s rich and savoury, slow cooked on the bone (picky eaters, get over it, that’s where the flavour’s at) for the most tender chunks of meat that melt in your mouth. It’s peppery and warming and the perfect winter companion, served with rice and peas and golden plantain.
While we eat, Miss Lola reflects on her experience with food growing up, having moved to the UK when she was 10, and accessibility to ingredients in a wildly different time:
“40, 50 years ago you couldn’t get all these things. Over the years everything improved, you don’t have to go back to the Caribbean and pack a suitcase with spices…we all can have the Caribbean taste here – but’, she warns, ‘if you don’t have the traditional way of cooking, it won’t taste the same.’
There’s truth to what she says when you look at the following Jerk Junction has, ‘we get every nationality, everyone comes here and they tell people ‘you’ve got to try JJ’ because it IS proper Jamaican food – there’s no half-measures about it y’know? And that’s how I want to keep it.’
When it comes to committing to authenticity, Jerk Junction puts their money where their mouth is. We enter the Jerk Shack which houses Jake’s pride and joy: the custom-made drum imported from Jamaica. The jerk chicken, by way of coals and magic I’m sure, is cooked to perfection, every time.
It’s their speciality so you can expect nothing less than juicy, smoky chicken that stops a conversation and demands all your attention. I chose to douse mine in their jerk gravy which is beautifully fruity, with a slow-building heat that’s not quite spicy, but rounded with sweetness and tang.
Miss Lola’s favourite dish is her ackee and saltfish ‘with roasted breadfruit because that’s the Jamaican in me.’
Her ackee and saltfish situation is actually kind of holy with its seasoning, and completely different to anything else on the menu. The thyme complements the salt-cured fish and the soft ackee is a taste I can only describe as ‘fun’. It’s herby, a teeny bit spicy, but so fresh and light you could eat it by the bucket, with very little chewing necessary. Plus, ackee is healthy af and full of nutrients so there’s that.
On maintaining Jamaican culture and tradition in the UK, Miss Lola notes the disparity between the two cultures: “There’s other things that people don’t eat that we eat, like stewed peas with pig tail. I still cook it; my friends come round to eat it, but I cook it for joy. It’s an occasion food. The children like it as well, you see. And our children are born in this country so you have to each them your tradition and way of eating otherwise it will just die out you know? You have to keep at it.”
We discuss the future of Jamaican food, and Caribbean food in general. With a lot of chain restaurants like Turtle Bay popping up all over the UK, Miss Lola is firm in her belief that “Jamaican food is strong enough to stand on its own because people want it to be proper Jamaican…my plans for the future is to enjoy what I’m doing, and I can’t see me not doing it, it’s for the love in me, to promote Jamaican food. The original, not the watered-down version.”
Far be it from me to question anything Miss Lola says. While they’ve enjoyed well-deserved success, Jerk Junction recently came under fire from a ghastly minority online after being featured in a Google ad for #spenditblack, and raising awareness about Black Pound Day (BPD is the first Saturday of every month where people can make more of a conscious effort to buy black-owned). Trolls are gonna troll, but really it begs the question: if you enjoy black food/music/art/aesthetics and love to benefit from black culture, but don’t want to see black-owned businesses elevated and celebrated, what are you doing eating their deliciously-seasoned food in the first place?
Some food for thought there. Catch Miss Lola, Jake, and the team, where they’re open 7 days a week in the new year. Lucky us!
Tue-Thu, Sun 12pm-10pm
*will be open on Mon in the new year
Vegan options ✅