Words by Jesse Serwer
I knew I would be drinking plenty of beer and eating lots of good food when I visited Madison, Wisconsin this past April, but I wouldn’t have guessed that this consumption would include washing down a plate of spicy jerk chicken with several bottles of Red Stripe. I also wouldn’t have figured while having that jerk and Red Stripe that I would only have to walk a few feet down the street to top it off with glasses of Barbancourt and Appleton Reserve—in a cozy yet comfortable nightspot with echoes of Negril. But such are the wonders of Williamson Street, a quiet commercial and residential street just outside of Madison’s much livelier downtown.
On a recommendation from a friend, my wife Simone and I took the 10-minute cab ride from our hotel on our last of three nights at Wisconsin’s state capital to Jamerica. There’s a real Jamaican spot run by folks from Port Antonio, we were told. We found a quiet but colorful restaurant slash grocery store, one of its walls covered with polaroids and 8x 10s of folks like Gregory Isaacs, another adorned with the standard Jamaican tourism posters, and a refrigerator stocked with Ting, Red Stripe and Kola Champagne.
I ordered the jerk chicken with the usual assortment of rice and peas, salad and plantains, although the option of mango rundown made the choice a tough one. Simone got the oxtail. We were served large dishes stuffed with food which neither of us were able to finish. We were disappointed to have to turn down a takeaway bag, which a flight out of town scheduled for the following day made impractical. I don’t rate baked jerk dishes nearly as highly as I do grilled jerk, but given that preference, I found Jamerica’s baked jerk chicken sufficiently tender.
After our meal we were introduced to Martin Deacon, Jamerica’s proprietor, who told us he’d opened the restaurant about 10 or 15 years ago. He’d been in Madison for decades, though, and the restaurant had actually grown out of a street cart on the University of Wisconsin campus, which they continue to operate. The restaurant also serves as a Jamaican grocery, selling bottles of Martin’s jerk marinade and hot sauce and homemade key lime pies, among other things.
Martin and his wife tipped us off to a place on the same street called Jolly Bob’s, which turned out to be next door, almost. We found what looked like a small, hut-like space from the outside but was actually much larger, with attractive decor, photos from Cuba and Jamaica on the wall, and an autographed 8 x 10 of Eek-a-Mouse. It was Saturday night, so the place was pretty well packed, primarily drinkers near the bar but also a few tables sitting down to meals. At some point, a DJ started playing reggae with a little bit of dancehall, though the mellow crowd, mostly young professionals, was not in dance mode.
Already stuffed from Jamerica, we didn’t try the food but the menu, which did not come as highly recommended as the drinks, seemed to contain a mix of various island cuisines (jerk pork; chicharonne). I was pleased to find what had to be the largest selection of rum in Wisconsin, stuff from all over the Caribbean and Central America: Brugal, Don Q, Flor de Caña, a Guyanese one I can’t remember. The bartenders made prodigious use of blenders, whipping up piña coladas and daiquiris at a pace that made you want to try one too. The piña colada was pretty good. It didn’t feel like yard or Flatbush at Jolly Bob’s, but it certainly was surprising to encounter two places that felt this close to home in the land of cheese curd and Schlitz.