When Jammyland soft-opened in late February, it changed the look and vibe of Main Street. Chill reggae spilled out of the bar’s exceptional sound system. Crowds gathered in the front patio, sipping island-inspired libations while a selecta spins rocksteady, dancehall and calypso classics. Spring had finally arrived in the Arts District.
With the mood and music just right, Jammyland, whose logo has featured the words “Cocktail Bar & Reggae Kitchen” since its inception, recently added a crucial element: the reggae kitchen.
Chef John “Bubba” Grayer—one of four partners alongside Danielle Crouch, Allan Katz and Jen Len—creates an exquisite menu starring what the owners describe as “authentically non-traditional” Jamaican cuisine.
“It’s us paying homage to Jamaica rather than us doing Jamaican food,” Grayer says.
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
While Grayer may be a New Yorker, his extensive culinary repertoire make him a seasoned fit to helm the kitchen.
The 37-year-old chef and former marine has cooked all over the country, from New York’s Fire Island to California’s wine-rich Sonoma County. In each location, he studied a different cuisine. There was seafood at New Orleans’ GW Fins, Indian at Bollywood Theater in Portland and Malaysian cuisine at New York’s now-shuttered Fatty Crab. Those experiences fused with Katz’s love for all things Jamaican influence the menu at Jammyland.
“The Jamaican thing is: ‘Out of many, one people.’ That’s because everybody who has gone through there has left a mark,” Grayer says. “Many of the things we associate with Jamaica came from somewhere else. Once you start looking at the history, you start seeing this melding of cultures. And that’s been my experience living in different places and learning these different styles.”
Grayer’s experience cooking ethnic dishes in Portland and New York especially come in handy at Jammyland. It was at Fatty Crab where he made his first roti, a flatbread that originated in India and has variations throughout Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The Trinidadian version lands on Jammyland’s menu as the Buss Up Shut, a soft, fluffy and buttery treat that’s made fresh with each order. It’s called that because it resembles a busted up shirt; “buss up shut” is how the locals pronounced it.
The Buss Up Shut also accompanies the bold Jamaican Curry. The dish is made with pulled chicken, coconut milk, habaneros and Grayer’s own spice blend and packs a medium heat. (Don’t be afraid to eat with your hands: rip off a piece of roti and use it to grab chunks of the tender meat.) The island staple comes from Indians, who were taken to Jamaica as indentured servants in the late 1800s and early 1900s when both countries were under British rule. Indo-Jamaican items are peppered throughout the menu.
“There’s that Indian connection with Jamaica, so I thought it’d be cool to do the Mumbai-style burger,” Grayer says in reference to his chickpea sliders—a flavorful fritter made with a Jamaican curry blend. There’s also a non-Indian carnivorous counterpart, the Jammy Sliders, comprised of beef and pork blended patties, habanero aioli and pickles served on mini brioche buns. Each order comes with two sliders.
The vast majority of Jamaicans have African ancestry. That heritage is strong in Jamaica so, naturally, it manifests itself in Jammyland’s offerings in the form of ugali sticks—an appetizer of fried polenta bars topped with coconut shavings and served with a side of honey to dip them in—and Grayer’s black pepper shrimp and porridge, among others.
Of course, there are dishes that are uniquely Jamaican, too. After all, what’s a Jamaican restaurant without the jerk? Enter the 24-Hour Jerk Wings, but even those have a twist. Traditionally, Jamaicans chop wood from a pimento tree and grill meats on top of it. “We can’t get allspice/pimento wood, so we decided we wanted to smoke the meats and get the flavors that way,” Grayer says. He also adds molasses and plays with different types of rum for his jerk sauce. “I like the way the smoke sticks to the molasses.”
The smoked ribs are another sticky standout. They’re dry-rubbed with various spices, smoked for five hours and slathered with a habanero jelly. Don’t let that last item scare. “Once you heat it up on the ribs, it mellows out so it isn’t too spicy,” Grayer says.
Like its cocktail menu, the food is a constant experiment and will continue to evolve. Grayer will keep playing with different recipes and hopes to add brunch down the line. Whatever comes, it will match Jammyland’s fun, laidback vibe.
“Jamaica’s a big party,” he says. “Music and food, that’s what it’s all about.”