Among the euphemisms that food writers throw around, “hidden gem” is one of the more common.
We understand, of course, that the restaurant in question is not a polished and cut semiprecious stone. Nor do we really believe that it has been placed out of sight or concealed from view. We simply take it to mean that the joint is relatively unknown despite the quality of the fare.
And, yet, every once in a while one comes across a restaurant that is, in fact, hidden from view, even if it doesn’t exactly serve diamonds. Irie Mon Cafe in Buckhead is one of those.
Imagine you are looking at the eccentric, multicolor storefront of R. Thomas Deluxe Grille, the sort of façade that has loudly announced “restaurant” to passersby for decades. To the left is a parking lot and the Macquarium building, an office set so far back from the road as to seem intentionally inconspicuous. Even standing on the sidewalk and looking directly at this building, you would not see the front door and Irie Mon Cafe sign because it faces the side parking lot, not the street.
No matter how hidden from view it is, the door to Irie Mon Cafe is worth finding. You’ll know you’re getting close when the bewitching aroma of jerk chicken starts wafting through the air.
Every morning before the lunch rush, and most afternoons before dinner, the cooks at Irie Mon Cafe fire up a Char Griller brand offset smoker, the same basic barrel-on-its-side setup that a dozen of your friends probably have behind their house. I can almost guarantee that the smoke wafting from Irie Mon smells better than anything you’ve ever smelled in a friend’s backyard.
That’s not because of any fancy wood-burning setup or smoker engineering. They use simple charcoal here.
The chicken at Irie Mon marinates overnight in a classic combination of allspice, herbs and peppers that, when hit with that charcoal heat, transform into a complex and alluring aroma: herbal and spicy, smoky and sweet. That’s all before you even taste a bite.
A lunch plate of that jerk chicken costs about $10 and comes loaded with a bevy of traditional sides: purple-hued rice and peas; steamed cabbage and veggies turned ever so slightly turmeric yellow; a few slices of ripe, caramelized, not too sweet plantains. But what you really want is the main event here, that jerk chicken.
Chopped into bone-in chunks, as is traditional, the meat here is silky, still quite moist and tender, and yet charred with little black bits. The flavor is not directly spicy, in the burning sense, but deeply flavored with a complex combination of black and fresh peppers. I’m not exactly sure how the combination of direct and indirect heat produces such juicy, smoky and pleasantly charred chicken, but I do know I’ve picked clean every bone I’ve been served here. The dark, spicy-sweet sauce that comes on the side doesn’t hurt.
Though the menu at Irie Mon Cafe offers several options, most of it revolves around three traditional techniques: the long-simmered, savory richness of brown stew, the smoky perfume of that jerk chicken, and the bright, ginger-packed flavors of Jamaican curry.
The latter, Jamaican curry, is both similar to and distinct from the Indian curry you might be familiar with. In a curious twist in the history of global trade and colonialism, both Jamaica and India were colonized by the British as early as the 17th century. Though the British traditions of, say, Yorkshire pudding or bangers and mash seem to have made little impact on Jamaican culinary style, the spices from India that flowed freely into the colony were adopted by Jamaican cooks.
Thus, the brilliant, glowing turmeric-yellow curry goat served at Irie Mon. With some of the plates, the heaping serving of purple-ish rice and peas can seem a little bland — too much rice and not enough flavor. But the goat curry, which comes with heaping scoops of thick, ginger-laden gravy, brings the rice alive. The tender chunks of goat, long simmered, fall in strands from the bone.
None of this is presented with gussied-up style. The dining room is a bare-bones, fluorescent-lit space that nearly suggests that you take the food to go. I’m not certain if I’ve seen anyone dining in there. The Styrofoam containers are, anyway, a rather ideal vessel for those piles of rice and peas and heaps of rich gravy.
The most-savory option might be the brown stew oxtail. The rich fattiness of that cut of beef renders out a gravy so dark brown that it is nearly black, salty and sweet. I loved picking out the tender pockets of beef from the oxtail bones.
There are more simple, grab-and-go-type lunch options. You could do worse than a bottle of Ting, a sweet, potent grapefruit soda, and a rich beef patty.
I’m not sure, though, how anyone could walk past the smoky aroma of that jerk chicken without wanting to go home with a plate of it. That’s what I’ll be coming back for. I think you will, too, as soon as you can find this place.
Irie Mon Cafe
7 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. 1800 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. 404-464-7188, iriemoncafe.com.
Recommended dishes: Jerk chicken, curry goat, brown stew oxtail.