The secrets to Little Jamaica’s Z Bar & Grille’s success
Can jerk chicken save a restaurant? Suzette Henry thinks so.
After moving from Los Angeles to Little Jamaica at Keele and Eglinton in 2003, Henry worked as a bartender at a few restaurants. And while she enjoyed the neighbourhood’s heavily Caribbean food scene, she couldn’t find a place that served an American-style burger and beer. She considered launching her own place. Three years later, she did just that, opening Z Bar & Grille, featuring all-day breakfast, burgers and ribs on the menu. “But the restaurant was struggling,” she says.
(Read about other local places like Bloor West’s Monkey Paw bookshop and Legacy Barber Co., bringing downtown haircutting to Upper Beaches.)
So in 2006, when Culture, a record producer and owner of King Culture Records and Videos close by on Eglinton Avenue, was looking for a space where people could buy and sell records on a Sunday, Henry jumped on the opportunity. Culture invited a friend called Jerkman Tommy, who brought along his barrel drum grill and some chicken, which he cooked and sold in front of the restaurant.
Since immigrating from Jamaica in the ’70s, Tommy, who had been a cook in a number of restaurants, had become well-known in the neighbourhood for his jerk chicken. Henry hadn’t even tasted his food that day (“It must have been good because he sold out,” she says), but she soon hired Tommy to work in her kitchen and put his jerk chicken on the menu. It became the (literal) secret sauce her business needed.
Tommy’s jerk sauce is a combination of aromatic sweet and peppery spices and seasonings such as onion, thyme, pimento, as well as some secret ingredients. “People who come from Jamaica say they have to come back to the restaurant because they can’t find chicken like mine anywhere else,” he says with a laugh. Loyal customers keep ordering it even when they move away – three delivery apps help bring the food as far as Mississauga and Scarborough.
“We’re popular,” Henry says, “in part because we smoke the meat on a barrel drum and because we do everything from scratch.”
The original recipe is his father’s, but Tommy has tweaked it to reduce the spiciness, so that it doesn’t overpower the other flavours. Customers can choose the level of heat they prefer. One aspect of the preparation that’s not negotiable: the chicken must be smoked on an outdoor charcoal grill. Bone-in and skin-on chicken is first marinated then baked in the oven, before being smoked in a barrel drum outside, all year round. “No matter how cold it is,” Tommy says, “I still go out there, because it has to have the flavour from grilling over the charcoal.”
Henry says she will never live down the first time she attempted to smoke the chicken herself and scorched it so badly she couldn’t serve it. “You have to know what you’re doing,” Tommy says. “You have to keep moving and turning the chicken every few minutes to avoid burning.” When it’s done right, the result is deliciously smoky, moist and tender chicken loaded with flavour.
Z Bar is an eclectic place, with a neon sign outside inviting people in, and board games, dartboards and a couple of pool tables in the back. “People can get up and mingle for more of a pub experience,” Henry says. Since Tommy’s been in the kitchen, the menu has expanded to include oxtail, curry goat, salt fish and festival (fried dumplings), spicy jerk pork wontons, even jerk poutine and nachos. True to its roots, Henry still serves American pub-style fare, like mac and cheese, chicken wings and a brisket sandwich and such desserts as carrot cake and red velvet cake.
Z Bar & Grille’s success comes down to the food, says Henry, who adds that, 16 years later, she and Tommy have become like family. “I wouldn’t be here without Tommy, and he wouldn’t be here without me.”