When Forever Jerk’s operation in Brooklyn is going full throttle, the smoke is visible from at least a quarter-mile away. I saw it for the first time as I was driving down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Starrett City housing complex, and I thought somebody had thrown a couple of couches out on the street and set them both on fire.
The smoke, in fact, pours from five or six hooded stainless-steel grills the size of steamer trunks that are hauled up onto the sidewalk along Flatlands Avenue six days a week. Under the hoods are half chickens and pork shoulders, rack after rack of them, inhaling the hardwood charcoal fumes that help turn the meat into the finest, juiciest and most impressively smoky jerk in the city.
Urban jerk buffs are used to scanning the horizon in summer for low-lying blue clouds in areas where Jamaican-Americans live. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, East Flatbush and Brownsville, jerk is made in simple grills more commonly used for backyard hot dogs and hamburgers; larger and sturdier offset smokers from Home Depot and Lowe’s; and a variety of rigs custom-made from oil drums, water boilers and other vessels. If you are used to seeing these other smokers, your first visit to Forever Jerk may make you feel like a young child being taken to a monster truck rally.
Folding tables are set up in front of the smokers, where the cooked meat is rapidly broken down with cleavers and packed to go in foil. Behind this makeshift butcher station is a chair and a small tented table, looking a bit like an old phone booth, where calls for pickup orders are taken and payment — cash, Cash App or Zelle only — is received.
Next to the smokers is a cart where Jamaican soups and porridges are ladled out from enormous caldrons. On weekends, the corn fritters called festival are fried over a propane-powered flame ring. Depending on the weather and time of day, Forever Jerk may also unfold some shade canopies and plug floodlights into portable generators.
Last weekend, Forever Jerk began testing the waters in the Bronx with a similar, less elaborate but equally smoky outdoor branch on the edge of Seton Falls Park in Edenwald. A takeout storefront on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in Springfield Gardens, Queens, a few blocks from the rarely visited backlot of Kennedy International Airport where the cargo hangars are, serves as Forever Jerk world headquarters. Oneil Reid, the chef and owner, presides over all three locations, although at any given moment he is likely to be somewhere between them, stuck in traffic behind the wheel of a van loaded with seasoned meat and hardwood charcoal.
Mr. Reid, a native of Montego Bay, achieved a brief celebrity more than a decade ago with a food truck in Midtown called Jamaican Dutchy. Long and slow-moving lines were routine for his goat curry, jerk, oxtails, escovitch fish and other dishes, which won the admiration of such fans as Bobby Flay, Andrew Zimmern and Usain Bolt. By 2013, though, dealing with city regulations and neighbors’ complaints got to be “too much,” Mr. Reid said. Jamaican Dutchy drove out of Manhattan and never returned.
Surrendering one borough freed Mr. Reid to conquer others. He seems to have divided the Jamaican Dutchy menu among his locations. The new Bronx site and the Brooklyn one, puffing away since 2018, get the jerk and anything else that can be cooked over the charcoal that burns inside a battalion of smokers of Mr. Reid’s own design. The takeout business by the airport, established in 2014, has custody of the recipes that can be made in a normal kitchen, like the excellent escovitch with transparently battered fried whiting and the unusual coconut-free goat curry, the chunks of meat on the bone dressed with so much minced scallions, thyme and other fresh herbs that they’re almost fuzzy.
To the right of the door is a small juice bar, where in addition to pressed carrots and beets you can get hibiscus tea or a smooth, cinnamon-flecked peanut punch. Jerk is on the menu taped to the front counter. If you come too late in the day, though, you may find that the jerk at Forever Jerk does not last forever.
I’ve been to the Brooklyn location at hours when the pork has run out or hasn’t arrived yet. It is cooked in batches of 150 pounds, cut from two-inch-thick shoulder steaks with a rim of fat and skin around the edge. Your order may be yanked from the smoker in a state of pull-apart tenderness that a fourth-generation Carolina pitmaster would admire. Or it may be a touch dry and a little chewier than you’d want, in which case it will still be some of the most flavorful jerk pork in the city.
I’ve never known the quality of the chicken to change, though, apart from the desirable variations from bite to bite that you get when chicken is spiced, smoked and hacked with cleavers into irregular bits. Sometimes you will pick up an unrecognizable shape that turns out to be mostly skin and bone. It will still be worth gnawing on. Some jerk slingers apply rubs and sauces to the surface, which is where it stays. Mr. Reid’s recipe transforms the chicken. The jerk goes all the way down to the bone.
What you won’t get is charred skin and meat so stringy and parched that it’s gone from jerk to jerky. This style is the standard product at some of the city’s best-known jerk merchants. Some New Yorkers have even come to prefer it. One of Forever Jerk’s employees told me that first-time customers occasionally try to return their chicken because it isn’t dry enough. “They don’t know,” he said, shaking his head sadly at how far they were from Jamaican-chicken satori.
Another, more understandable complaint would be that the chicken and pork aren’t notably spicy. The jerk is always fragrant with allspice, ginger and thyme, among other things, but the chopped chiles in the marinade don’t necessarily adhere to the meat. Mr. Reid’s jerk sauce, which will rain down upon your order from the spigot of a plastic drink dispenser if you ask, is on the milder, sweeter side, too. The solution is a few long, electrifying squirts from the squeeze bottle holding another house recipe, the bright-gold Scotch bonnet sauce.
Forever Jerk’s shrimp needs no help at all. It is wrapped inside foil with chopped okra, peppers, carrots and herbs, then tucked in near the charcoal somewhere. When you get it, the foil will look like a fragment of a rocket that has re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. The shrimp inside will be tender, the okra al dente. Under them will be a small pool of what is surely the most delicious Jamaican shellfish bouillon you will ever drink from a vessel made of scorched aluminum foil.
Getting a meal from Forever Jerk entails a certain amount of uncertainty. You may call ahead to ask about the whole fish and be given an hour when it is expected to appear, and then find, when you show up at that time, that there isn’t any fish after all. Or you may be told when you arrive that there won’t be any pork that day, and then, when you reach the front of the line, find out that it’s just come off the grill.
Occasionally the chicken will temporarily run short. Suspense will reign until Mr. Reid arrives with a fresh batch. Marinated birds will tumble from plastic trash bags on to the grills. The lids will be shut. Smoke will fill the encampment again. Life continues.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.
Queens: 145-94 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, Springfield Gardens; 718-978-2222.
Brooklyn: Pennsylvania and Flatlands Avenues, East New York; 516-738-6796.
The Bronx: East 233rd Street and De Reimer Avenue, Edenwald; no phone.