Jamerican Grill Offers Island Style in Ypsi
A small accident of history in the early 1980s led Allen Willard unexpectedly to Jamaica. A culinary-school grad, Willard was the cook at an Ann Arbor fraternity back then. When a frat brother dropped out of a spring break trip, Willard was invited to take his place.
He still remembers his first Jamaican meal.
“Jerk chicken, red peas and rice, fried plantains, festival bread [a kind of hush puppy flavored with vanilla and rosewater] and French fries fried in peanut oil, which is so flavorful,” he says, with a reverence clearly audible over the traffic at Michigan and Hamilton Streets in Ypsilanti.
That’s home base for Jamerican Grill, a food truck inspired by the island flavors Willard loves so well. It’s a full-time project for him and his life partner Sebastien Keeler, who holds a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from Eastern Michigan University. After that first trip, Willard fell in love with the country, and he returned again and again—learning to cook its foods, driving its length and breadth in search of memorable meals.
“You’re told, ‘Go to this food truck. Go to that barrel down the road,’” Willard says. “It’s the people that are pushing the barrels that you get the best jerk from.”
In recent years, Willard worked at Ann Arbor–based supermarket Busch’s, where he whipped up Jamaican-inspired hot-bar items that he says “would sell out fast. The [customers] were guinea pigs.”
“He would come home every day with a different version of the jerk seasoning,” recalls Keeler, “trying to get it right, trying to get it to taste like we had it in Jamaica.” Then one day, Willard nailed the perfect combination of thyme, garlic, onion, pimento (allspice), salt, oil and vinegar.
Originally peopled by the Taino, inventors of barbecue, Jamaica’s presentday cuisine fuses traditions of African slaves, European colonizers and workers from India and China, among others.
Jamerican’s menu echoes those traditions, including fried plantains, jerk chicken wrap with fresh-pineapple coleslaw and banana pepper rings and hand-cut fries. There’s a dish Willard calls Rasta Pasta, containing rigatoni, red beans, corn, peppers, onion, jalapeño pepper and a lime herb vinaigrette. There’s also jerk sausage, custom-made at Fresh Thyme in Canton.
The Jamerican Grill started life as Keeler’s final master’s project, then the couple worked to make it a reality. Its grand opening was Halloween 2015 at the Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market.
Jamerican also ranges farther afield, including to Detroit’s Eastern Market, Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market and Northville Winery and Brewing Company.
The usual clientele is a mix of EMU students and locals of all ages and colors. But Jamerican’s owners say they’ve also received a special endorsement.
“We had a Jamaican guy come up, and he was really skeptical,” Keeler recalls. After trying the food, Keeler says, the man started talking to people in line, saying, “You guys will not be disappointed! It tastes just like my mom used to make, but don’t tell her that!”
“We had to tell [the people in line] that we didn’t pay him to say that,” Keeler adds with a smile.
Find out more at Jamerican Grill