St. Bess Jerk Hub in Norwich excels at bringing the island flavors
Growing up in Texas, I traveled to Mexico several times, but not since I stepped down as head of the Jalisco cartel to open my own soft serve ice cream business. Other than that, the only occasion in which I've been out of the country was seven years ago. My sister, having won a prestigious award from her nationwide company, was presented with a trip for two to a resort in Jamaica. I was flattered when she asked me to accompany her.
It was early spring, about this time of year, in fact, and, mon (as amusing Americans are required to say along with "ganja" and "irie" anytime the subject of Jamaica is broached), it was beautiful. The only problem was, as we were indeed staying in a resort, there was very little authentically native Jamaican other than the reggae band playing at sunset in the beach lounge and, of course, the rest of the employees of the hotel. Chinese restaurant? Yes. There was one on site. Authentic Jamaican cuisine? Not so much.
We did take a taxi 10 miles into Kingston to sort of really see Jamaica and hopefully eat some food, and our driver dropped us at the top of a crowded street in the heart of the commercial district. We exited the cab and found ourselves in front of a Burger King. Seriously. Other than that, I mostly remember hordes of Young American Persons whose idea of international travel seemed to have been forged from repeated viewings of MTV "Spring Break" marathons — which is to say, lessons in how to make citizens of other countries hate us — we didn't experience much culture.
I'd love to return to Jamaica at some point. It was beautiful, and the citizenry we did meet were delightful. In the meantime, though, I'm happy to travel 15 miles to Norwich and a small restaurant called St. Bess Jerk Hub, the motto of which is "an authentic taste of Jamaica freshly prepared daily."
Opened just over a year ago during a rather severe stretch of the pandemic, St. Bess is owned by Dwight Muirhead and Ricardo Blake, originally from St. Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica. It's located in Oaktree Plaza, next to the Dairy Queen.
The first thing you notice is the cooking aroma of the place — fantastic! It puts the "T" back in tropical and makes you reach for your iPhone to text your travel agent and instruct, "Send me any place warm, with an ocean and spices." A lot of Jamaican cooking, I understand, is predicated on bright seasonings and overnight marinades where flavor seeps into and tenderizes the ingredients. Also important: cooking over pimento wood.
St. Bess is a small, narrow space with high-top booths lining either side of an aisle to the rear where one orders and is served. Brightly painted in yellow with splashes of green and black, with images of Bob Marley, the Jamaican flag and the regal Rastafarian lion on the walls, St. Bess is cozy and casual. (I looked St. Bess up in the "Book of Saints," by the way, and couldn't find her. I think she must be the patron saint of "I'm hungry.")
Muirhead is the cordial frontman of the operation, and Blake pops his head out from the kitchen on occasion to smile. The menu is moderate and representative, and principally features chicken, steak, goat and pork dishes in a variety of brown stews, curries and jerk preparations. Sides include rice and beans, yams, cabbage, potatoes, plantains and a slightly sweet Jamaican bread called festivals.
Oh, and yes, they have oxtail and, on weekends, cow foot & bean, but someone else will have to try those. One, after all, is, ah, the tail of an ox. The other come off the end of a cow's leg.
Here are the dishes I DID eat (and will, except for one, have again, eagerly and repeatedly):
Curry Chicken ($7.50 lunch, $12 medium, $14 large) — Two plump drumsticks and a hunk of thigh sit in a pool of delicious curry sauce atop a hill of flavorful white rice and beans. The chicken and sauce have a bright golden color as per the curry powder and various seasonings that seem to include ginger and cumin.
Having been cooked in a pot along with chopped vegetables like peppers and carrot, the bird absorbs the slightly spicy, slightly tart flavors. It's so tender that some of the meat flakes off of its own gravity, and it's almost as though just waving a fork above the chicken causes the rest to do so. When a bite full hits your tongue and the olfactory essence of the dish floats into your nostrils, the simultaneous explosion of senses is almost laugh-inducingly good.
And dipping your fork deep into the beans and rice means they, too, have now added the curry components to their own texture and taste, and it's amazing.
Pepper Steak ($8 lunch, $12 medium, $15 large) — Another mind-expanding experience. Slivers of red and green bell pepper are tumbled together with a bountiful array of lean sirloin strips that have been dry-rubbed in an earthy spangle of goodness. The meat is so adroitly nuanced that the exterior crunch is almost jerky-like — but immediately gives way to a succulent interior. The peppers, along with hints of onion and garlic (and was that even a slice of sweet carrot I tasted?), are playful counterparts to the steak. Again, this tapestry of goodness is laid out atop the rice/beans combo, which serves as a solid underpinning.
Jerk Chicken (dark meat $7.50 lunch; white, dark or mixed in medium and large from $12-$16) — Turn up the heat. The recipe, it seems to me, is very similar to Cajun blackened efforts, where a dusky rub is heavily applied and sort of blowtorched atop the pieces of chicken. The bite is like a peppery sparkler in your mouth, then gives way to the sublimely juicy chicken inside. Again, the meat falls away. Most use a fork, but it IS fun to tear apart the chicken and then show Colonel Sanders what it REALLY means for finter-lickin' good.
Steamed Snapper ($13 medium, $16 large) — This dish is from a list that includes dried cod, jerk or curry shrimp and fried chicken that requires 30 minutes prep time. The snapper is served whole, with the head and desiccated eye sockets. I typically like snapper, but this felt a little heavy-handed and slightly oily. Too, there are the bones to negotiate. I suspect others will enjoy this preparation; it just didn't work for me.
I love St. Bess Jerk Hub and am hiring some ecclesiastical types to find out who St. Bess is. Then I'll petition her with prayer in the hopes she'll move to New London.
St. Bess Jerk Hub
276 West Main St., Norwich
Cuisine: Authentic Jamaican
Atmosphere: Very casual storefront, brightly painted in the colors of the island flag
Service: Polite, helpful (and remember certain dishes require a half-hour to prepare)
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Prices: Very moderate for a huge amount of food
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Curb up from parking lot; otherwise very roomy