Railhead Jerk: Savory Dinner On The Right Side Of The Tracks
By CB Wismar
By all means, don’t let the name of the restaurant perplex you. “Railhead Jerk” is not a pejorative directed at an employee of Metro-North. It is, in fact, a delightful restaurant that has blossomed on Route 22 in the southern end of Amenia, N.Y.
When Julette Barker-Wilson came to a point of reflection in her life — the fashion company she had been with for 21 years as an FIT-trained fashion designer was sold and the jobs moved overseas — she decided to fall back on the things most enjoyable in her life: cooking and entertaining.
Enter Railhead Jerk, just “up the road” from the Wassaic train station, Barker-Wilson’s daily departure spot for more than two decades.
Born in Jamaica and well schooled in the recipes and cooking techniques unique to the island nation, Barker-Wilson [right] relied on the recipes she had known in her childhood — recipes she tweaked and modified to make her own.
“I love the dishes we prepare,” she says with the radiant smile that has become a signature of her restaurant. “Everything on the menu is something I’ve cooked for years… something I still love.”
For those who have sampled and truly enjoyed authentic Jamaican cooking, Railhead Jerk is like a homing beacon. On any given evening, tables and seats at the bar are populated with customers who remember the savory jerk sauce cooking that turns chicken, pork and ribs into warming, satisfying meals.
The jerk specialties, all marinated in their own secret sauce (a secret recipe is just that — a secret) and smoked, take center stage. The restaurant uses fresh meats, only (Julette does not want a freezer) and all dinners come with two sides.
Port Antonio jerk chicken ($17.95), Port Antonio jerk pork ($18.95) and Railhead Jerk BBQ back ribs ($20.95) are excellent headline offerings. They’re so good that the menu offers a whole chicken with no sides ($22.50) and a full rack of ribs ($27.95), both of which drive a robust carry-out business. Smaller portion sizes (Likkle Tings) are offered on the menu, a welcome option for those who are not hearty eaters.
Island specialties are served with plantains and rice and feature dishes that belie the wide range of cultural influences that have been merged in Jamaican cuisine. Tallawah curry chicken ($15.95) and Tallawah curry goat ($17.95) hint at the Indian influence. Fricasse chicken done in a brown sauce that has great bouquet ($15.95) reaches to other influences — France and Spain.
If some additional spice is desired (no one queried at Railhead Jerk found any need to enhance the already bountiful sauces made in house) there are bottles of Spur Tree Crushed Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce on each table. Difficult to find in local retail establishments, bottles are for sale at checkout.
As the seasons turn, hearty soups will be in great demand, and the pumpkin soup with beef or chicken ($10.95) and pea soup with smoked beef or turkey ($11.95) will have great appeal.
For fish lovers, the Calypso fish ($18.95) is served with a spicy Junkanoo pepper sauce. Since Junkanoo is also the name of a holiday parade and festival in Jamaica, this dish might well have you eager to join the celebrations. Run Down fish ($19.95) is a bit milder, served with an elegant coconut sauce. And, for the Jamaican traditionalist, the ackee and saltfish ($16.95) is served with breadfruit dumplings and ripe plantains — the traditional “national meal of Jamaica.”
The choice of sides (Pon Di Side) makes each dinner an individual signature choice. Railhead baked potato salad features both sweet and “plain” potatoes while the oven-roasted vegetables are a medley of seasonal vegetables from local markets. Rice and peas can be deceptive to the first-time diner, as “peas” in the Jamaican parlance are really red beans, making this wonderful side akin to “red beans and rice” from Southern cuisine. Fried ripe plantains are in ample supply while the menu recommends bammy and breadfruit as appropriate accompaniments for the fish dishes.
Barker-Wilson has not forgotten dessert (Sweet Tings), and the sweet potato pudding ($4.75) [above] is smooth, richly flavored and served with a dollop of cream in a portion suitable to share. Jamaican fruit cake ($5.50) will be available shortly.
Railhead Jerk has both a beer and a wine license, and currently offers diners access to world-renowned Red Stripe beer. Wine selections are coming as the team decides what pairs well with the various entrees offered.
Service at the simply decorated restaurant is “Jamaica friendly” and the pride in the superb menu items is apparent. Although the décor appears to be an afterthought (a few requisite Bob Marley posters adorn the walls along with travel images) it’s clear that the focus has been on the kitchen and the food that brings people back again and again. In true Jamaican patois, if you’re yearning for food from “Jamrock,” then Railhead Jerk is “Big Up!”
4789 NY 22, Amenia, NY
Thursday, Sunday, Monday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Reservations and carry-out orders accepted.