At UJerk, it’s more American than Jamaican

click to enlarge At UJerk, it’s more American than Jamaican
Doug Trattner / Scene

It slaps you like a double-overhead wave. No, not the bang of the jerk spice, but rather the electric-orange awning splashed with the mischievous name UJerk. That flag, boldly planted in the heart of downtown, pinpoints the home of Cleveland’s newest Caribbean eatery. Like others popping up, this one streamlines the traditional Jamaican restaurant experience into an efficient fast-casual operation. But unlike many of its brothers and sisters, UJerk takes a more conservative approach to the food.

Owners Jon Manning, Jenna Murphy and Jeremiah Perkins describe UJerk as a Jamaican-themed restaurant infused with American-style dining. I’d be inclined to flip that characterization to state that UJerk is an American-style restaurant imbued with a taste of Jamaica. If your sights (and taste buds) are set on bagging one of those ubiquitous Styrofoam containers struggling to bear the weight of slow-braised curry goat or oxtails, you’ll need to recalibrate those receptors.

UJerk, which opened in mid-July, delivers its jerk-flavored fare in the form of salads, sliders, sandwiches, wraps and plates. That “secret recipe” jerk seasoning finds its way onto boneless white meat chicken, boneless dark meat chicken, bone-in dark meat chicken and, you read it here first, falafel. Other “protein” options include tuna salad and shrimp and crab salad.

In typical plug-and-play style, diners select their preferred meat, delivery vehicle and side. One of the most popular menu items – and for good reason – is the Snack Pack ($10), a trio of sliders that allows diners to mix and match their fillings. Items like boneless jerk chicken, tuna salad and vegan falafel land on spongy, eggy slider buns with lettuce and tomato or cucumber slices. That falafel proved to be a surprise hit owing to its airy, herby interior and crisp exterior, which is finished with sweet chili glaze. The “spicy tuna salad” is not too far removed from deli-style, save for a few errant flakes of red pepper.

As for the main attractions, the jerk-spiced items do have a complex, captivating flavor profile, but they lack the trademark punch of scotch bonnet peppers. That, of course, is by design as the owners are seeking to attract a broader clientele than just frequent island hoppers. The dish that most closely resembles the real deal steel-drum grilled classic is the jerk chicken plate ($8/$10), a mess of skin-on, bone-in dark meat that possesses the characteristic earthy, savory appeal. This chicken also lacks the sweet chili glaze that seems to land on many of the other menu choices. A few dashes of the “Hot Jamaican” sauce even manages to approximate near-faithful heat levels.

Other sauces include a dark, thick and smoky-sweet BBQ, a funky-with-a-kick Irie, a peaty, woodsy Reggae Root and the Sweet Chili.

A cool, crisp and summery baby shrimp and imitation crab salad gets a textural boost from thin-sliced onions, carrots and bell peppers. It all gets bundled up in a large flour tortilla and sliced on the bias. Falafel, tuna salad and chopped boneless jerk chicken also can be ordered as a wrap. Every item except the aforementioned chicken plate costs $10 and includes a side. Again, UJerk does things differently, sidestepping the customary steamed cabbage, rice and peas or plantains for a simple salad, lightly breaded french fries or coleslaw.

On weekends, UJerk trots out the Rasta Pasta ($14), an Alfredo-esque pasta topped with jerk chicken.

While delivery service is not yet an option, diners can call ahead to order and pay and request curbside pickup. For those who do amble into the downtown shop, he or she likely will be greeted with the equivalent of a warm, Caribbean hug. These staffers appear to take island hospitality seriously, bellowing hearty hellos and heartfelt thanks. The shop is colorful, festive and organized.  “Influencers” literally are encouraged to snap a selfie in front of the faux living wall of greenery on their way out.

The goal, says partner Perkins, is to offer a side dish of escapism along with that tasty jerk chicken.

“When you come in here, you’re going to feel like you’re on a beach, that you’re away for a little bit,” he says.

If plans play out as expected, don’t be surprised to spot future UJerk shops in Columbus and elsewhere.

UJerk Caribbean Eatery
850 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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