CHIC grad Johnetta “Ja-Ja” Martin-Smith used to work in the Markham jerk joint St. Martin’s Restaurant, until the owner—her older sister—shut it down to follow her husband to London. So Johnetta set out to open her own place and found a sweet spot right under the Green Line stop at California, where she’s been running it for about two months with the help of another sister, Tonya. They have yet to put in seating, so I tried a few things yesterday al trunko, in the parking lot next door.

Adherents of texturally “hard” jerk chicken will immediately notice a difference in Martin-Smith’s. It’s less dry, more stewy, and little less smoky than some of my favorites, but that’s a deliberate stylistic choice. She starts the rubbed chicken in the aquarium smoker over lump charcoal, but finishes it in the oven to avoid drying it out—not necessarily inferior, just different. Her jerk sauce is thin, heavily vinegared, and dominated by allspice, but has a respectable burn as it seeps into the rice and beans on the bottom. We also ordered oxtails and a bony but tender curried goat, which won the day (pictures attached).

The sisters are putting out up to 19 sides daily—stewed cabbage with carrots was terrific, and greens, cooked with smoked turkey rather than pork, were pretty salty but nicely textured, with a lot of life left in them. Their mother is on dessert duty, and her sweet potato pie had a nice understated sweetness. Her soft, gooey peach cobbler, with plenty of caramelized brown sugar, is exactly the sort of thing that reduces me to a helpless drooling infant.

They’re also doing smothered pork chops (the only swine on the menu, except for a Tuesday jerk rib tips special), jerked salmon, tilapia, and catfish, plus chicken three more ways–stewed, curried, and fried. The beef patties, like the bread, are from Rogers Park’s Caribbean American Bakery.

Ja’s Jerk Chicken, 2806 W. Lake, 773-533-5375