I’m at Scotchies in Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s northern shores, watching unsmiling, soaked-with-sweat men labor over giant, smoking slabs of jerk pork and crispy mounds of jerk chicken.

It is a brutally humid Jamaican July day and I’m drenched, but that doesn’t bother me. Nor am I bothered by the sweating guys preparing our food, who are dripping lord-knows-where as they labor to create some of the island’s best jerk food. What’s a little extra salt when the grub is this delicious, right?

How Jerk is Made

I adore jerk food, and this non-descript roadside eatery is the original Scotchies; others are in Montego Bay and Kingston. It’s classic jerk, natively delicious, served in nothing-fancy style.

Whole chickens and giant slabs of freshly butchered pork, doused with sauce and spices, are heaped on pimento or dogwood logs and smoked over fire, topped with giant panels of corrugated metal to keep the smoke in.

The Sights and Smells of Jamaican Cuisine

Magical jerk smell fills the dark smoking room which is open for public gawking, particularly from American tourists not used to the sight. Locals abound here and make up the bulk of the clientele—perhaps the surest testimony of how good any Caribbean restaurant is.

There are long lines at busy times and we just caught a lull in the serving one Saturday mid-afternoon. There is a great open-air bar here to pass the time as well, where you can sit with locals watching sports and try to decipher their lilting patois.

In the smoking area, sweaty cooks watch the meat crisp up dark and moist, and when it’s done, they pull  it apart, apportioning various quantities of the steaming, aromatic meat to plates.

You eat here in one of several small huts on the heavily flowered grounds, occasionally pestered by a feral cat or stray dog, sitting on heavy, handmade stools of sturdy local wood.

This is wonderfully spicy food and you’re welcome to add fuel to your fire with the scotch bonnet  sauce, but be careful: This cousin of the habanero is one of the hottest peppers in the world, and the most popular on Jamaica. A little goes a long way.

Go small first and wait for it to infuse your lips and face with spreading warmth before deciding to load up. My personal advice: A native Jamaican Red Stripe beer is a perfect counter to the pepper’s mounting heat.

On the Side

Our group had giant portions of pork and chicken, wolfing it down in no time, gorging ourselves on the succulent, flavorful meat served with bountiful baskets of Jamaican festival bread—braided tubes of corn meal batter deep fried golden brown.

We also had roasted breadfruit, a Jamaican staple, slathering it in fresh butter, and roasted sweet potato, different from what Americans are used to in that it’s chewier, stringier and incredibly good.

And you get all this on the cheap: A full pound of pulled pork is a mere US$14, while a whole pulled chicken is about US$12. And the sweat of its preparers? No extra charge.