2204 Kirkman St. • Lake Charles • 419-1844
The Local Grubscape By Justin Morris
Sometimes food is more than just a meal. Sometimes, it can be an event or an adventure. On this particular day, it was a memory. The day in question was one a few years past: the day when I first tried the jerk pork from Tasterite Jamaican. But first …
It was the better part of a decade ago and I was sitting in Montego Bay’s Havana Club. I had the place all to myself; that is, all to myself save for the bartender, Sylvia, who had little else to do but serve me old Cuban and Jamaican rum and Red Stripe Bolds and keep her lone patron company on this sunny February afternoon.
In the haze of the smoke from the Cohiba that I puffed on, we spent, literally, hours of her telling me all about the culture, the music, the food and the people of her home country, while I, in turn, told her about my culture back home in Cajun country. We talked about the differences in our respective cultures and the things we respected about each other’s worlds.
One of the many things we agreed on implicitly was the brilliance of Jamaican jerk — something that I’d only thought I’d tasted before that day. I’d seen The Pork Pit down on Gloucester Avenue, or “The Hip Strip,” as it is known, and had planned to stop there on my way back to the ship. But I figured the locals had to have something that was a bit more their own than the spot serving scores of cruise ship patrons day in and day out.
I was right. This would be a place called Scotches. But, sadly, it was a bit too far away for what time I had left. I had no other option than The Pork Pit, and, though it may not have been the locals’ place, the brick and corrugated sheet metal porcine pyre turned out the finest pork I had ever known. It changed everything I knew about jerk before that. And it’s been the gold standard for jerk ever since.
Now, this being “The LOCAL Grubscape,” you may be asking, “Why on earth is he droning on about a restaurant 1,200 miles and a couple of major bodies of water away?” Well, there’s a reason, so bear with me. As I stated above, I first had the jerk pork from Lake Charles’ own Tasterite Jamaican a few years ago. It was at the Arcade Pavillion for Live at the Lakefront or some similar affair, and I finally had a chance to try The Chuck’s one and only jerk.
It was that day that I truly learned just how food could be a memory. That sweet, smoky spiciness put the world’s finest travel agent to shame with how quickly I was transported back to the side of a dusty paved road in Montego Bay. I was in utter awe of the sauced-up fatty pork that I held in my hands. I could almost see the gaggle of noisy tourists across the street at Margaritaville, and hear the calls of the local women calling out to this hippie, saying “Ooh baby, lemme braid ya’ hair!” — or the men quietly asking the selfsame longhair if he wanted to buy some ganja as the salty sea air swirled around me and mingled with the smells of burnt oak and seared pork that wafted out of the smokestacks immediately to my left … And then suddenly, I was back on the Civic Center grounds, pork in hand, while a local rock band entertained the happy crowd.
It was not just good food, though it certainly was that. It was THAT food made THAT way, and it was something that, for me, could only connect to that place and that time from many years before. It’s also something that I have availed myself of on many occasions since — but, somehow, only at events similar to that one or via the all too convenient Waitr, which would happily bring my little slice of Montego Bay right to my front door. I had never actually been to the restaurant, which had a new location after a six-month absence.
It was a Thursday afternoon in August that found me at their door. I’d say it was hot, but I suppose that’s a given. I walked in to find the brightly colored space wide and open and emblazoned with the familiar yellow, green and black that adorn the Jamaican flag and the expected smattering of Bob Marley iconography dotting the walls. I was surprised to find a small stage with a DJ turntable set up spinning out a nice mix of reggae, dub, dance hall and the like.
Another surprise was the small bar, with its quaint selection of spirts and a décor to fit the theme, complete with Jamaican flags and fresh pineapples set out among the bottles. Also on display were a dozen or so bottles of Red Stripe arranged decoratively. Considering the heat of the day, it seemed the obvious option. I ordered one as I took a seat at the bar.
With the squat bottle of lager now cooling my hand, I took a look at the day’s menu options. (They do change daily, so if you have a particular craving, you would be well advised to check the Facebook page before heading over.) Much to my pleasure, I saw that jerk pork was on the menu. I did get momentarily distracted by the curry chicken, which is no surprise given my passion for curry and just how incredible their curry is. But it wasn’t enough to sway me from my goal: I needed to smell that salty air and walk down the Hip Strip again. And to that end, nothing else would possibly do.
As I waited for my pork, the only other patron who’d been seated when I walked in got her to-go order and left, leaving me sitting alone at the bar with no company save my Red Stripe and the woman behind the counter, whose accent was clearly Jamaican. After a few minutes of silence, I decided to strike up a conversation.
Her name was Heather Wade; she’s one of the owners of Tasterite. She and chef Daemion Bailey started the restaurant on Opelousas Street five years ago and reopened at their new Kirkman Street home in May. As we talked, I found out the couple hails from Clarendon, a south-central parish (that’s right, a parish) located to the west of Kingston. They lived in numerous other places in the U.S. before they settled here in Lake Charles a few years ago.
“It’s feels like home,” she said. “The kids can play outside and you can drink a cup of tea on your front step. You can’t do that in New York City. And the people are so friendly. I remember when we first came down here, and I freaked out when I saw a sugarcane field. We’d seen sugar cane in the States. But a whole field of sugarcane? No, I’d only seen that back home.”
She said our culture seems to be reminiscent of the ways of the island. She talked about neighborhood fish fries and holiday cookouts — things that we’ve celebrated here for generations.
“To me, the only difference is the beaches and the water, really. I grew up on a farm, so I love to be outdoors, and this is a great place for that.”
At this point, she stepped away and returned with a massive plate of jerk pork and seasoned rice. I usually swap the veggies for double rice and get an extra cup of the jerk sauce to mix in. Now, if you’re unsure which size to get, go small. The small is huge and the large is really two meals. So unless you’re hungry enough to chew your own leg off, go small. I got a large because I was more than happy to have some leftovers later.
As I sat and ate, I began to realize how, in many ways, this visit was mirroring many facets of my day in Montego Bay. I was drinking Red Stripe at a bar talking to a lovely Jamaican woman about different cultures, peoples, places and flavors. And, despite their differences, I saw how much they all have in common. I may not have been a stone’s throw from a white sandy beach with crystal blue water or smoking Cuban cigars and drinking Cuban rum, but I was, in many ways, re-experiencing that time and place. But I was able to do so without the lofty cruise expense and with the ability to be a matter of minutes from home. We dined on ideas, we indulged in common ground, we feasted on culture and we washed it all down with a big glass of love, just as dear Sylvia and I did oh so many years ago …
Tasterite is here, and it constitutes a wonderful new facet of Southwest Louisiana culture. It’s one of food, fun and love. Wade has more in store, as well. She tells me of plans for reggae dance nights and fresh fruit cocktails made with the flavors of home and more. She stresses that she’s not one to compromise on tradition and her vision, so authenticity is all but guaranteed. But it will be something new, different, and most certainly tasty, for all of Southwest Louisiana to be a part of and enjoy.
Respect, Tasterite. Much love.