If you make it no further than here, you just need to know this much:
Chef Derrick Anderson – a native of Jamaica’s Saint Ann parish and a forty-year West L.A. resident – has given us something special. After scouring the menus of the less than fifty West Indian brick-and-mortar eateries in Los Angeles County, Anderson’s Culver City Caribbean oasis Janga is the closest thing to a New York-style, relax-and-stay-a-while “Caribbean lounge” the Southland has to offer, and the only one that offers festival bread and rum punch (also known as Thank You, Jesus, For Numbers One and Five).
If the six hours we spent at Janga stopped at just rum and bread…we would still recommend it. But the restaurant’s brilliance goes so far beyond that we may as well start with the most important part.
Anderson himself had a hand in determining the drink menu, and it reads as a passport of everywhere he’s been: from traditional Jamaican cocktails like the rum punch, to the Island Mule inspired by the Moscow Mules he’d had in Texas – where we still spends his time when not in Culver – to pineapple margaritas for the tried and true Angelenos. There’s even an Island Old Fashioned with Appleton rum, bourbon, allspice, agave and bitters, which just…feels like the United Nations of drank.
Our favorites, however, in order were:
- The Hibiscus (read: sorrel) Rum, with that magical Blackberry-Made-Love-to-a-Stargazer-Lily profile that only hibiscus can give you.
- The Drop Yu Drawers (no not just because of the name, but because it’s a strong-ass piña colada in a martini glass with a flower)
- The Rum Punch – what we though was Kool-Aid was actually a fresh juice mix of pineapple, strawberry, orange, and guava nectars. Plus a bit off allspice? You’re speaking our language.
The best part of all three of the drinks above? A Wray & Nephew base. Read up if you aint already know.
But the fun didn’t stop there – we needed food. Otherwise the fun may have absolutely stopped there. Enter that table bread to end all table breads. Those Fingers of the Gods of the Beach Side Fish Fry. That hushpuppy without the self-consciousness:
This blessing that Jah bestowed upon us was warm and chewy, but still light, with aromatic cinnamon and nutmeg fanning the flavors of crisp, golden, fresh-fried cornmeal. If you order three baskets of those and about four drinks and just…walk home? It will be the best vegetarian afternoon of your whole life.
While a healthy handful of L.A. spots do offer festival, the reason it’s so hard to find that trendy, well-designed vibe and rum punch and the hot-oil cornbread sticks is a subject for a longer post. However, just listening to his philosophy, it’s easy to see how Anderson has managed to score all three. No matter how we pose the question, the defining characteristics of a good island restaurant always start with the same thing: an atmosphere that makes you want to stay. Often that’s through interior design, or through plating, but inevitably it’s always through a bar. Of which we partook, plentifully.
But how many restaurant reviews with cocktails and fried dough? Too few, right? In any case, leaving it at the Holy Binity felt almost unfair in Janga’s case. So we ate more. For y’all, of course. We love you so much!
We recommend you order as we did: aggressively, with three “Taste O'” portions (basically entrees without the sides). This allows you to essentially administer the State Assessment of Jamaican Fare: the oxtail portion, the curry goat portion, and the jerk chicken portion. Remember when a 1600 was good???? Oh, shit, 1600 is good again???
Slow-cooked for five hours, the beefy bone cuts were a rich, deep umami-soaked brown, garnished with bright green pops of scallion. Bone-sucking was welcome, we were told, but it was hardly necessary: the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. Or nearly so, Derrick insisted. No knife needed, but they weren’t just gravy either.
The curry goat
Our diagnosis of the goat as “generously meaty” ended up being spot-on: Derrick specifically uses the more lavish Australian hind leg for the dish, equating to a single substantial bone for the flavor, and then a hillside worth of tender protein. We called it “hot” but that may have been less habanero and more Oregon gringo taste buds: we learned later that ginger root pulp – having been juiced for some of the of the menu’s most refreshing cocktails – ends up cooked in the curry goat, giving it one hell of a zing that compliments the curry and contrasts the richness of the broth.
The jerk chicken
Two thighs and a drumstick – definitely the way to go – with meat yielding like butter at even the suggestion of a fork and knife. But what shocked me was where I typically expect the melt-your-face-off scotch bonnet heat, or even the peppery granules of almost an entire spice cabinet, the chicken was saucy…and sweet. Almost like barbecue in taste.
More on that later. Easy nuh.
Of the three Taste O’s, the curry goat was our favorite. Our stellar server/Janga manager, Angie, concurred that patrons usually favor either the oxtail or goat. But I was surprised to hear why the jerk chicken wasn’t the top pick:
“Some people think it’s too spicy,” she said.
What??? “The curry goat was spicier than the jerk!” I protested, (likely embarrassing myself, as implied above). But this started us down a whole line of questioning with Anderson that ended up shedding light on two major themes of Janga.
Caribbean for Angelenos?
The first theme is adapting to SoCal palates: namely that Anderson has hardly had to do any. After more than two years in operation at Janga and eighteen for sister restaurant, Derrick’s, he’s been impressed by L.A.’s affinity for Caribbean food. Even with a Caribbean population he’d consider sizable concentrated in the Crenshaw area and south, guests at Janga are a diverse mix. Many folks he imagines are inspired by past vacations or – as proffered by a chef in another recent article – fancy themselves culinary world explorers on the backs of Food Television’s boom. For the most part, apart from the odd jerk taco or pineapple margarita, no compromise to the food is necessary.
There are the inevitable concessions, however: kale features heavily. Rice and peas may be swapped for roasted potatoes. Anderson’s own love of seafood – Janga comes from the term used in Jamaica for a river shrimp – couples well with a health-oriented menu where seafood provides fresh, protein-rich, low-fat fare. But most notably is the dial-down of heat. Or as Anderson puts it, if he cooked the jerk they way he likes it himself, he’d have no customers.
Instead, to make his food stand out to adventurous customers, Anderson relies on incredibly fresh ingredients prepared the right way. This is the second overarching theme at Janga, and one that applies nowhere more so than with the jerk chicken.
The chicken begins with a three-day marinade (or four : beyond that, the chicken’s no good will go bad. And here’s where the sweetness comes in: featured in the marinade are papaya (which Anderson says adds tenderness) and apple juice, which compliments the apple wood on which the chicken is smoked.
After an hour smoking on apple wood, along with hickory and alda, the chicken is cooled before cooking finishes. The result is a flavor-packed chicken that goes from bone-in to boneless with a casual flick of the wrist. So even though our mouths sort of watered and saliva pooled at the edges as we listened to Anderson point out the problem with your typical “drum pan” chicken, sitting there getting crispy and a bit dry, we get it. Fresh ingredients make all the difference in this case, heat or no heat.
All of the above has added up to an exceptional dining experience right on Culver City’s buzzing Main Street. If you haven’t made it down yet, go get your Taste O’s any day of the week after 11a.m. They also feature Steel Drum Night on Fridays, and are rolling out Rum Tastings and spirit-themed Thursdays with discounts off of drinks.
(Like we needed any help there).