Finding good Caribbean food down Puerto Viejo way isn’t as easy as it used to be, with the local restaurant scene becoming ever more cosmopolitan. But casual, cheap and cheerful Jammin Juice and Jerk Joint has found a middle ground, delivering down-home Caribbean flavors with a dash of worldly style.
True to its name, this “joint” is little more than a shack, albeit a charming one, just a stone’s throw from the beach in downtown Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast. The restaurant’s signs are surfboards painted with laid-back slogans. Every flat surface, from walls and chairs to tables and counters, is striped in red, green and yellow paint, except for the ceiling, which is lined with grass matting. Reggae band posters decorate the walls in keeping with the soundtrack, which is upbeat and interesting, going way beyond the usual Bob Marley standards while keeping the volume to an enjoyable level. You can’t help but not worry and be happy in this place.
You can sit out front on wooden stools at curvy counters, or be sociable at the long picnic table with a view of the beach. Out back, there’s an inviting new garden patio, cool and colorful, shaded by an old tree, with tables big enough for a group.
What inspired the restaurant’s name, other than a fondness for alliteration? Owner Tina Stavast says “jammin” in Jamaica means getting together and having a good time with good food and good friends. And that’s her aim here.
Born in Holland, Stavast grew up in Montreal, then migrated west to Victoria, British Columbia. How does a Dutch girl from Canada get into the Caribbean-food business? Stavast moved to Costa Rica in 1991 with her son and daughter to start a new life, opening a diving operation in Puerto Viejo.
All her life, she says, her family traveled and experimented with international foods, and she spent a lot of time in Jamaica over the years, visiting friends and acquiring recipes.
Her sense of style comes from a career running April Cornell clothing boutiques, and the idea of a juice bar, she says, was an echo of the North American West Coast obsession with healthy fruit drinks.
Her fiancée, Alfonso Hudson, is a born and- bred Puerto Viejan, and he’s the man responsible for all the handsome woodwork and carpentry in the restaurant.Up and running for almost three years now, the restaurant is a family affair, with three of Hudson’s nieces working in the restaurant. The rest of the staff is local, too, and service here definitely comes with a smile.
The house specialty is smoked chicken and fish, cooked in a massive Jamaican-style smoker, welded by a local metalworker. It sits out front in the dusty street, and the spicy, savory smell wafting from the smoker is the restaurant’s best marketing tool. The jerk recipe, from the south coast of Jamaica, is a wet marinade of allspice, garlic and ginger, freshened with orange and lime juices and punched up with fiery Scotch bonnet peppers.
The chicken is meaty, moist and spicy, but not the kind of spicy that leaves you gasping for breath.
The fish is usually mackerel, marinated in coconut milk flavored with lemongrass and ginger and spiced with chili. The marinating and smoking processes give it a tender, meltin-your-mouth texture that doesn’t feel like fish at all.
Both the smoked fish and jerk chicken (¢2,800/$5.40 plus 10% service) are accompanied by a delightful assortment of innovative sides: potatoes roasted in olive oil flavored with garlic, lemon and paprika; Alabama slaw made with cabbage, carrots, sweet peppers and onion with a zing of mustard and cayenne; a pot of homemade hot sauce balanced by another of refreshing cucumber and yogurt tzatziki; and a mound of jasmine rice and a tortilla to soak up all the sauces.
You can order the same jerk chicken and smoked fish in a lighter taco version (¢1,800/ $3.50) accompanied by refried beans and hot sauce; or in a pita pocket (¢2,000/$3.80) accompanied by hummus and tahini sauces.
Vegetarians and health-conscious beach goers will feel right at home here. There’s a long list of vegetable dishes, including a large exotic salad (¢1,800) with a choice of homemade dressings; vegetable dips (hummus, tahini and baba ganoush) served with pita from the Little Israel bakery in the western San José district of Pavas (¢1,000/$1.90 a small serving; ¢1,500/$2.90 large); vegetarian curry with rice, banana-mango chutney and raita (¢2,800); or a falafel burger with onion, tomato, cucumber, special sauce and a rice salad (¢2,200/$4.20).
Even if you’re not hungry, Jammin has the best fruit juices and smoothies in town, as well as the widest selection. You can choose from single-flavor papaya, melon, watermelon, pineapple, banana or passion fruit, mixed with water (¢600/$1.20), milk (¢700/ $1.30), yogurt (¢900/$.170) or Caribbean inspired coconut milk (¢900). Then there are sublime smoothie combinations (¢950/ $1.80), such as CahuitaBeach, combining mango, banana and coconut milk. The vegetable juices here are almost meals in themselves: try a Diablo, a concoction of carrot, beet, parsley, ginger, garlic and chili (¢1,000) or the Detox Cocktail, which combines parsley, celery, spinach and carrot.
The smoothies are thick and sweet enough to double as dessert, but Jammin makes fresh fruit sorbets (¢1,200/$2.30), too. There’s also a cake of the day (¢1,500), either a mango yogurt cake or a strawberry fruit torte.
Jammin is open for light breakfasts as well. Along with all the eye-opening juices, it serves a granola, fruit, honey and yogurt parfait (¢1,500) or eggs any style, served with fruit and – a rare treat these days – real johnnycake (¢1,500). Baked by Miss Perlina in Puerto Viejo, this johnnycake is a light, eggy bread made with coconut milk and a touch of sugar.
Toasted and served with butter and jam, it tastes just like brioche, Caribbean-style.
Jammin Juice and Jerk Joint
Location: Puerto Viejo, Limón province. Back side of Edificio Manuel León (aka El Chino), across from the new Catholic church, one block from the town’s main street and about 50 meters from the beach.
Hours: Monday to Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.