Feed your inner jerk at No Leftovers, where a Jamaican kitchen has replaced Swanky Franks
Seldom have I reviewed a restaurant whose name I am unsure of. No Leftovers is the exception to the rule. From the outside there is no name signaling you have arrived at your destination. There is only a hand-painted Jamaican flag as well as a large painted sign saying “Jerk Chicken” and “Jerk Pork.” People call this place “the Jamaican restaurant that is where Swanky Franks once was” or “That new jerk pork place,” but if you Google “No Leftovers,” up pops their website and this is indeed the place you are looking for.
I love jerk pork and jerk chicken and I love Jamaican meat pies and fried ripe plantains. I also love Reggae music, which comes on the loudspeaker as soon as No Leftovers opens their front door. Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals were blasting from a speaker placed outside. The music was so loud you could hear from the patio at the far end of the restaurant. I usually hate loud music in restaurants, but I will make an exception here. I dare you to eat a plate of jerk pork at No Leftovers and not groove along with the beat, mon.
Jerk refers to a rather elaborate style of cooking. Whatever meat is used (or even the occasional vegetable) is bathed in a marinade or paste whose main ingredients are searingly hot Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice. After an overnight bath in the marinade, the meat is cooked slowly over wood or charcoal. It is hard to find a reliable written recipe for jerking meat; it seems you just have to have grown up in the culture and intuitively know when it is ready, which is exactly the case at No Leftovers.
No one really knows the origin if the term “jerk.” Some food historians point out that it derives from the Spanish word “charqui,” and can be traced back 2,500 years to the way the traditional way Arawak Indians used to cook. When the Arawack culture was diminished by plagues and brutality, this style of cooking was then taken over by African slaves and continues to be a speciality among their decedents. “Jerked” food is not soul food, but it is a close second cousin.
No Leftovers is a mysterious place. When you walk in to order, there are three extraordinarily handsome Jamaican men on the counter line. No one smiled at me, there was no gushy welcome, but one of the men held out a delicious small meat pie attached to the end of tongs as a gift. The men are not rude, they are mysterious.
So what about the food? It is a rather simple menu, jerked meats being the stars of the show, and well they should be because it would be difficult to find better “jerk” anywhere in Connecticut. I have eaten jerk chicken and jerk beef all around the Caribbean and this is on par with the best.
Too often “jerked” meats are overcooked. They can be dry which is then sneakily off set with lashings of red spicy jerk sauce. Surprisingly, my jerk beef meal (with jasmine rice and cooked cabbage on the side) was handed to me without any sauce. I was then offered a squeeze bottle of Jerk Sauce to use at my discretion. I squirted half the jerk beef with it and left the rest plain. To my surprise, the “naked” beef was every bit as delicious as the saucy version. The beef was moist and fell apart at the touch of the plastic fork. Like Texas-style barbecue brisket (also served without any sauce) this meat stood on its own.
Jamaican food has some traditional dishes which to Western palates may seem unusual. Oxtail and goat are hallmarks of the menu. Goat is jerked and also served in a curry sauce. Oxtail, a very fatty, gelatinous meat, is stewed and served as a thick soup. Jamaican cuisine does a lot with little. Beef, goat, ox, chicken and some salt fish all are in rotation on No Leftovers’ menu. You will find them jerked, in soup and served as curry. I have always been a big fan of curried anything, and at Caribbean restaurants I never fail to order it. It has a distinctly different flavor then Indian curries, it is sweeter and milder, which I suspect is from the use of coconut milk.
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Yes, jerk foods are spicy but not lethally hot like Indian Vindaloos or even some American barbecus, which sears the palate.
There are so lesser unheralded items on the menu. You will find the best jerk chicken wings here and wonderful fried shrimp, which are not on the menu, but are worth asking about.
I do love the mystery of No Leftovers. It is a living history lesson about the evolution of Caribbean food as well as a true bargain worth your time.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.
182 Connecticut Ave., Norwalk