Cha Cha Chicken is a funky local landmark with a kitchen that delivers
By Richard Foss
I always appreciate it when a restaurant’s decor and ambiance reflects its culture, something that can be accomplished with varying levels of subtlety and expense. A few travel posters, some traditional fabrics and handicrafts, the right music on the sound system, and a meal becomes a brief vacation. I can daydream that I might walk outside and hear another language spoken on the street, though in places like Santa Monica or Venice that might happen anyway.
One of the places that does this beautifully is Cha Cha Chicken, an eclectic Jamaican restaurant located on Ocean Avenue just south of the Santa Monica Pier. The restaurant celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and it seems to have spent the entire time getting funky. The main patio is festooned with colorful paintings, hand-lettered signs and other memorabilia, and is lit with strings of colored lights. Reggae thumps softly in the background, and only the outdoor heaters remind you that the waves you hear in the distance are the Pacific, not the Caribbean.
There are reminders on the menu that you are indeed in California, because many items are marked vegetarian or gluten free. Some items are fusions; I don’t think they actually make jerk chicken tostadas in Kingston, though as soon as you hear the idea you know it’s going to work. After considering salmon Negril (and salmon have never vacationed in those warm Caribbean waters either), I decided that at a place called Cha Cha Chicken I really ought to order chicken.
I couldn’t decide between the coconut fried chicken or the jerk chicken, so on a whim I asked the women at the counter if I could order a half chicken plate and get a quarter jerk, quarter fried. After a moment’s consultation with the manager she said yes. My companion chose a vegetarian enchilada with sweet mango and jerk sauce, and we shared a daily special of vegetarian curried lentil soup.
The soup might sound like a modern fusion, but it isn’t, since the British imported laborers from India for their sugar plantations as early as 1840. The use of Jamaican peppers and local spices have mutated the curries made there now, but the inspiration is still obvious. The onions, carrots, greens and herbs were stewed in a broth with a cumulative heat — not anything that will raise a sweat from diehard fans of spicy food, but warming nevertheless. It was substantial enough that the bowl would have been a good light meal, and in order to save room for dinner I took most of it home.
The veggie enchiladas were a departure from both Mexican and Jamaican tradition because they were made with mozzarella cheese instead of queso de Oaxaca or Cotija, and mozzarella is a bit milder and has a different texture than either of those. The cheese was mere rich background for the sweetness of the mango and the spicy notes of the jerk sauce, and though it was decent as it was I’d like to try it with something more assertive.
The chicken combo I requested was a complete success, the roasted chicken in a smoky, spicy jerk sauce even better when contrasted with the crisp fried chicken in a sweet herbed coconut batter. I had ordered the jerk sauce medium, and on a return visit I will kick it up a notch because, while fragrant and flavorful, it was on the mild side. If you have been hesitant about getting jerk chicken because you’re afraid they’re going to try to see how much heat you can take, have no fear here. For a more varied experience, ask for the combo like I did and get the best of both styles.
Our meals came with the traditional rice and bean mix, salad and choice of sides — my friend chose sweet fried plantains, while I had corn on the cob. Alcohol is not served here but they have soft drinks that include homemade ginger lemonade, a delicious cooling drink with a hint of ginger spiciness.
Our very full meal for two ran $37, not half bad for a place of character just steps from the beach.
After two decades of dishing out Jamaican food to a devoted clientele, Cha Cha Chicken has become a local landmark. If you’ve been driving by and wondering about the funky shack by the side of the road, it’s time to stop in.
Cha Cha Chicken 1906 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (310) 581-1684 chacchachicken.com