I grew up in New York, immersed in Jamaican culture, and made numerous visits to the Caribbean island as an adult. My taste buds know authentic Jamaican cuisine and accept nothing less.
Before finding AJ Jamaican Kitchen on Massachusetts Avenue, only the Jerk Pit in Montego Bay, Steve and Sons Bakery and Restaurant in Brooklyn and the dinner table of my friends Vinnette and Keisha would do.
But after my first taste of AJ's brown stew chicken -- tender, flavorful chopped quarters immersed in a rich stew with chunks of potatoes and carrots, served over a bed of rice and peas -- I knew I'd no longer have to travel far to satisfy my craving for Jamaican fare.
AJ's is primarily a takeout restaurant. There is seating but no tables, just a sort of bar nook along the back wall of the crammed waiting area. From the waiting area, you're staring into the kitchen, with aluminum pans set atop small burners near the window. Hefty orders of rice and peas, slathered with oxtails, jerk and curry chicken, are scooped into aluminum foil takeout containers with plastic covers.
Aaron Palmer, owner and cook, opened the restaurant in January 2011. He had worked seven years as a cook and manager at various Golden Krust Kafe and Grills, a popular Jamaican fast-food chain, in New York City and the Northeast.
I'm accustomed to meats with robust flavors, marinated overnight with just-picked spices, like sprigs of thyme, cloves and scotch bonnet peppers; and rice and peas, cooked perfectly in coconut milk with kidney beans and scallions. AJ's stays true to the island's culinary tradition of flavorful cooking with fresh ingredients. Its menu boasts of savory curry chicken, oxtails, beef patties and other Jamaican favorites.
While other restaurants often hold back or cut corners with the spices, appealing to a wider base of diners but sacrificing the authentic tastes, AJ's strikes a balance -- serving scrumptious real-deal dishes without a lot of heat.
Its jerk chicken is an explosion of spices -- nutmeg, thyme, pimento -- that permeates the bone of the chicken. While it's definitely spicy, it's not hot.
Meals at AJ's are available in small and large sizes and priced from $6 to $12. They come with sides of steamed cabbage, fried plantains and macaroni and cheese.
I was on the hunt for a source for a story, not food, when I discovered AJ's a few months ago. I entered the Lower West Side restaurant and stepped back into a kitchen from my childhood. There was a familiar and comforting aroma from the pastry of the beef patties baking in the oven and mingled with the sweet smell of fried ripe plantain. I scanned the menu, taped to the faux wood panel wall, and saw a small stew chicken was only $6 and a large oxtails was just $10. While my love for oxtails is unmatched, I ordered a small stew chicken, a safer bet. That day's deliciously filling meal marked the beginning of many stops at AJ's.
I've since eaten my way through the limited menu: esovitch fish (tilapia, prepared with a spicy vinegar marinade and fried), $7 small and $10 large; oxtails (meaty cuts in a brown steam -- which rivals Steve & Sons), $8 and $10; and beef patties (flaky pastry, filled with curried ground beef), $1.75. AJ's rice and peas, made with small red beans, is so rich and delicious, I've eaten it alone.
While AJ's lacks ambience and decor, it boasts high quality food and low prices.
> RESTAURANT REVIEW
AJ JAMAICAN KITCHEN
Review: 4 pennies (Out of 4)
"The real Jamaican deal."
WHERE: 209 Massachusetts Ave. 563-4140, www.ajjamaicankitchen-buffalo.com
HOURS: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday, Monday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes