Smile Politely

Dinner + Movie: Caribbean Grill + The Harder They Come

On a recent trip to Chicago for an Ukrainian Concert (that’s another story), I stopped by The Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary, an old haunt I haven’t visited for decades. This unique Chicago institution is a full-time rasta joint complete with live reggae music and jerk chicken. When you walk in, you are instantly transported to another dimension with an entirely different vibe. Was it my imagination or did I detect a certain distinct aroma? As I paid my cover, I happened to glance to the right, and the first thing I saw was a poster for a movie called The Harder They Come (1972).

I remember being introduced to this movie by local independent film exhibitors Ron Epple and Scott Mutter at one of their 16mm campus screening halls in the 1980s and leaving the screening with a feeling that I’ve just seen a masterpiece. I also remember the hard folding chairs and the humid hot August air which actually enhanced the experience of watching this Jamaican rasta gem that is now a cult classic.

In a club in Chicago, there is a movie poster for The Harder They Come with a Black man singing. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Lucky for me, Kanopy is currently streaming this film, so I watched it again as soon as I got home. As the film opened, viewers sensed something was not quite right. The camera was shaky, the picture grainy, the composition unbalanced, and the lighting on some scenes very dark. Was this a home movie? In fact, it might as well have been — this was both director Perry Henzell’s first film and reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff’s feature film debut. The Harder They Come is also the first feature film produced in Jamaica, and the film’s soundtrack album was an international hit that introduced reggae music to the world.

Filmed in Kingston, the film showed the real Jamaica, far from the all-inclusive beach resorts that Americans usually frequent. We see the poverty, struggles, and corruption of both the police and the local record industry. We also see the overwhelming oppression, the desperation of the common folk cornered at every turn as they struggle against impossible odds. But the music — always hopeful, optimistic, rebellious — it’s the music that propelled this movie forward to the powerful inevitable climax. This film is indeed a masterpiece that should be seen multiple times.

Two Jamaican men are on a motorcycle on a sunny day from the film The Harder They Come. Photo by New World Pictures.

Photo by New World Pictures.

Of course, this low budget indie film was shot on grainy 16mm stock using only natural light. Of course, professional actors weren’t used — you’ll lose both authenticity and impact. Of course, this is the best rasta movie ever made; time has proved that no other film can even come even close. The filmmakers made all the right choices in serving both the story (loosely based on a real Jamaican outlaw) and its urgent political message. We need more political movies like this today as the division between the haves and the have-nots has increased exponentially since this film was made.

We planned dinner at our local Jamaican joint Carribean Grill for their jerk chicken, the unofficial national dish of Jamaica.

Outside of Caribbean Grill, there is a giant sign above the restaurant in Champaign. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

I’ve tasted the real thing in rural Jamaica at a roadside shack, and let me tell you: our Caribbean Grill serves the real thing. In fact, if you’re looking for spicy hot food, no other restaurant in town comes close to hitting this level on the Scoville scale (that includes Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants like Lao Sze Chuan or Golden Harbor). This is serious stuff, but don’t let me scare you; they put the spicy sauce on the side, so you can adjust the hotness to taste.

Caribbean Grill is now a C-U institution. Owner and executive chef Mike Harden started our one-and-only Caribbean joint as a Wednesday-only lunch take-out service at the Refinery in 2012, then opened a food truck with the help of a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, and finally moved into their current location in 2017. Caribbean Grill’s popularity grew steadily until the pandemic hit. Through hard work and perseverance, Caribbean Grill managed to survive, and today they are going strong as a takeout only restaurant with their own online ordering app and no immediate plans to offer dine-in in the near future. Maybe they don’t need to, as there was a line out the door when I arrived on a Friday at 11:15 a.m. to fulfill my Jamaican fantasy.

Available as a half-chicken order (with two sides) or as a quarter-chicken order (with one side), diners can choose all dark meat, all white meat, or a mix. Each order came with one ounce of CG’s house-made jerk sauce on the side. I ordered the quarter-chicken portion ($6) and replaced the white bread with rice and peas ($1). My partner ordered the jerk beef meatballs Flavor Box (six meatballs for $6) which also came with one side and the jerk sauce.

On a brown table, there are two takeout containers and two cups of sides. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

We love our veggies as much as our meat, so we ordered two additional small sides ($2.50 each). This way we got all four veggies on the menu: rice and peas, green beans, steamed cabbage, and fried plantains. We also added one piece of cornbread ($1.30), an extra serving of jerk sauce ($0.70) and some island fire hot sauce ($0.90). The total of our lunch for two without drinks was a very affordable $24.44 with tax. We were hoping for desserts, but they were out that day. Next time, we’ll have to also try their Caribbean rum cake and whipped banana pudding.

On a white plate, there are beef balls with a tiny cup and a side of rice with beans and cabbage. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

This was our first time trying Jamaican beef balls, and we were instantly hooked. I’m not a big fan of burgers, so ground beef is not a stock item in our fridge. These juicy well-seasoned deep-fried balls were a refreshing new take on leftover discarded beef trimmings (isn’t that what hamburgers are made out of?).

I imagine Chef Harden probably seasoned the meatballs with thyme, allspice, garlic and scallions. When I added some of the jerk sauce, I was instantly transported to Jamaica. When I added some of his Louisiana-style island fire hot sauce, I was instantly transported to New Orleans. It was the same dish with two different dimension; what a difference sauce made.

On a white plate, there is jerk chicken with the bone in, green beans, and a little bit of rice. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Other restaurants have jerk chicken on their menu, but if you’re looking for the juiciest, smokiest, potent jerk chicken, this is the place to go.

Many restaurants focus on the main dishes but neglect the sides. Not Chef Harden. Every one of his sides were perfectly seasoned and beautifully balanced. The rice and peas were subtle. The cornbread was rich and buttery, and the plantains were not so overwhelmingly sweet. The cabbage and green beans were sinfully overcooked but so soft and velvety that they almost melted in my mouth. Attention to detail, dedication to perfection, and personal pride is what makes this restaurant special to me.

Chef Mike Harden has been quoted as saying, “What I would really love to do is a culinary world tour and just sit in the home kitchens of grandmothers or at the stalls and carts of street food vendors, and just be inspired by their drive, work ethic, and execution.” Now that’s an inspirational philosophy to which any foodie could easily subscribe. In fact, I’m so enamored by Harden’s cooking that I’m going to try these flavor profiles in my own cooking.

The Harder They Come is currently streaming for free on Kanopy (for Champaign-Urbana public library card holders and people with access to the Parkland or U of I libraries). The film is also available by subscription on The Criterion Channel or with commercials on services like Tubi or PlutoTV.

Caribbean Grill
2135 S Neil St
Tu-F 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

When he is not watching films, Paul Young likes to travel the world seeking good things to eat. So far, he has eaten his way through 22 countries, and he loves to share his culinary discoveries with cooking classes.

Top image by Paul Young.

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