“Are you with the news?” asks the gentleman sitting beside me at Jerky’s Spicy Chicken and More. When I tell him I’m there to preview the restaurant, he leans over and softly says, “This place is good.” And then his eyes get a little wider, and he whispers, “I mean, really, really good.” And with that, his to-go order arrived, and he took off without another word. But just 10 minutes later, I found out exactly what this somewhat mysterious fellow was talking about. Jerky’s, which has moved to downtown Little Rock from Arch Street, is indeed really, really good.
Jerky’s is owned by John Walker, Jr., and Angela Davis. You may recognize Walker’s name, as he is the son of the well-known Little Rock attorney. And while Walker himself has done some work in the legal field, he has spent the last two-and-a-half years running Jerky’s Spicy Chicken and More. And when the space once occupied by Utopia Restaurant and Lounge and 521 Southern Café opened up, Walker jumped at the chance.
“We saw a logical opportunity downtown,” says Walker. “We had time limitations as far as opening and closing hours on Arch Street. You know, some people feel that, after certain hours, certain parts of town are not desirable. So we decided the time was write to make a move.”
A frequent customer of Jerky’s pointed Walker and Davis to the new location, which turned out to have a few problems that needed to be fixed. The big issue was ventilation. Jerky’s uses a smoker to cook much of its product, and it took some time to put in a system that would funnel the smoke outside.
But now the move is complete, and Jerky’s is serving up its original “Jamerican” style of cooking at 521 Center St. “Jamerican” is just what it sounds like: a mixture of Jamaican and American cooking that uses Caribbean techniques and seasoning to create interesting takes on very familiar Southern classics.
“When I was younger, I visited Jamaica a few times, and just became kind of obsessed with the food,” says Walker. “I’ve been to many islands in the Caribbean, and for whatever reason, I just like that flair and the cuisine that’s offered in that part of the world.”
While we talked, Walker had a couple of items brought to the table for me to try. Everything I tasted was impressive, chief of which is Jerky’s signature jerk chicken sandwich. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is one of the 10 best sandwiches I’ve had in Little Rock. The smoked chicken thigh meat was juicy and had deep flavor, and Jerky’s secret recipe barbecue sauce complemented it perfectly. There’s obviously some citrus in the sauce (I’m guessing pineapple as well) as well as some heat, and the two elements played beautifully with the smoked chicken. Breast meat is available for the sandwich, but the dark meat is preferable.
I also got to try the chicken and ribs combination plate. While this chicken wasn’t chopped, it cut easily under my fork and was just as tasty. And the ribs are a sheer joy. Cooked perfectly until just barely tender, the jerk spices give these ribs a memorable profile. Notes of cumin, pepper, garlic and onion come bursting through in a rib that’s unlike any I’ve tried. And don’t skip on the sides. Of note, the sweet baked beans were just right, and the rice and beans with the optional homemade hot sauce were just as successful.
While Jerky’s Spicy Chicken and More is serving now, it will hold its official grand opening on Friday. After Friday, Jerky’s will be open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. In addition, Walker tells me that he would like to stay open for 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays, though that would be months away. Jerky’s has applied for a liquor permit and will soon feature a full bar. Jerky’s is taking to-go orders at 501-246-3096.