I knew there was something different about the jerk chicken served at Betty's Place (5601 Pembroke Rd., Hollywood, 954-226-3340), but I wasn't completely sure what. I was determined to find out.
"I can't tell you, man," the guy behind the counter gasped with a wide smile. "She'll kill me!"
Come on, I told him. I know you barbecue the bird slowly before you cook it with the jerk sauce. There's just no way you could get such tender, smoke-filled meat and such a firm, reddened exterior without slow-roasting it over an open flame. Just admit that! Please!
But he was impervious. He knew full well that Betty very well might kill him if he so much as hinted at her supersecret jerk chicken recipe, the very recipe that had brought me to Betty's.
I'd heard of the wonders of her jerk chicken: How Betty had perfected this recipe alongside her husband, Vernon, and her four children. It had been a longtime goal of hers to open a home-cookin' restaurant with this chicken as the bold centerpiece. Her quaint, 2-month-old, yellow-and-blue café in the deeps of Hollywood is the result, as much a labor of love as the warming, comforting food she serves with careful grace.
Betty's is a family establishment: There's a cluster of crosshatched metal tables and chairs, room for 15 people at most to sit comfortably, and a long counter with a paper menu taped to the top. On our Saturday visit, we were too late for breakfast (served 6 to 11:30 a.m.; lunch runs until 4 p.m.), so we narrowed our choices to the jerk ribs ($7.99), jerk chicken ($6.99) — each comes with rice and peas and a side — and a slice of homemade coconut cake ($1.50). After about 20 minutes (everything's cooked to order at Betty's), a fresh-faced young woman emerged with our meals, hoisted on cute, colorful plastic trays.
I went straight for the chicken. There was easily half a bird, chopped into bone-in pieces the size of a child's fist and piled about four inches high. I'd ordered the chicken very hot. "I don't think you can take it," said the smiling sous chef. After the first peppercorn-filled bite, I thought, this ain't so bad.
I was wrong.
See, Betty's jerk is not like any jerk you've ever had. It's not sweet. There's barely a trace of brown sugar or molasses, which may leave some diehards skeptical. But what the chicken lacks in sweet, it makes up in savory punch. Behind the mask of peppercorns, garlic, and that secret blend of spices is a layer of devious heat courtesy of fresh habanero peppers. You don't even know they're there. After a couple of bites of fall-off-the-bone tender chicken, it hits you: a wave of slow, grasping, irresistible heat. Jerk like this is a transcendent experience. You just keep eating that delicious meat, redolent with smoke and spice, and your head clears faster than an island skyline.
Betty's, with its smoky, barbecue-style jerk chicken and ribs, is sort of like the best parts of the American South transposed to the Jamaican hillside. But don't expect everything to be the same each time you show up. One day, they didn't have chicken — instead, they were serving Southern-fried pork chops big enough to rise up and secede from the Union. When we went back next, I was blessed with some of the best collard greens I've ever tasted: My huge portion came with its very own ham bone, still caked with tender meat. Did that mean I had to do the dishes, or was I just lucky? At Betty's, I'd definitely say the latter.