Just One Dish: Oxtails at Jam-Rock in Southwest Philly
The story behind this halal Jamaican treat and why you should try it.
Welcome to Just One Dish, a Foobooz series that looks at an outstanding item on a Philly restaurant’s menu — the story behind the dish, how it’s made, and why you should be going out of your way to try it.
Since he was five years old, oxtail has been a luxury for Umar Waite. When Waite was growing up in the coastal city of Montego Bay in Jamaica, he’d walk from school to his grandmother’s restaurant and ask his mother to make him the dish. The cut of beef was a treat, its marrow taste bubbling in a salty-sweet, sticky stew.
In Jamaica, Waite says, oxtail is often prepared on Sundays for families who can afford to buy meat. “Sundays in Jamaica are a big cooking day, so your mother would prepare the best meal for the week on a Sunday,” he explains. “Nine out of 10 families who can afford to cook will cook, and they’ll cook the best meat they can afford. Some people can’t afford oxtails every week, but they’ll prepare oxtails once a month.”
Today, at his own restaurant on Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philly, Waite serves oxtails as well as other signature Jamaican dishes like goat curry, jerk chicken, conch soup and curry, plantains and more. The cash-only restaurant is small, with just a few tables and chairs across from an ATM and a cooler. Most customers stop by for takeout, picking up steaming food in styrofoam boxes.
Halal oxtail isn’t readily available in Philly. So, as a practicing Muslim, I’d never had the chance to try Caribbean-style oxtail. I’d always been excited by the prospect of eating the tail cut, knowing that most thrown-away parts of the cow are the tastiest. On a cold, rainy day, I hopped on the trolley and went down to Southwest Philly, one of the city’s halal-cuisine hubs. The area boasts multiple fried chicken joints, as well as soul food, West African restaurants, and Jam-Rock’s excellent Jamaican food.
Jam-Rock is one of only a few Caribbean brick-and-mortar restaurants in Philly marketing itself as halal. Waite converted to Islam six years ago, and gets halal beef from the Four Seasons Meat Market, a supplier not even a two minute’s walk from Jam-Rock across the parking lot next to Dunkin’ Donuts on 61st Street and Woodland Avenue.
I order my oxtail to-go with rice and mac and cheese, the plastic bag warm against my fingers as I wait for the trolley back home. When I finally get to dive into my takeout, eating the oxtails is an experience in and of itself. Each piece is juicy with jelly-like bone marrow inside and a thick, dark russet-colored gravy that gives the dish its heady, deeply salty and slightly sweet flavor. Jam-Rock’s gravy is fragrant with onions and garlic. The sauce permeates the meat without weighing it down, leaving the oxtails moist but not swimming as it might in a curry or an oily stew. I impulsively keep reaching for more and more until it’s all gone.
Waite won’t give out his oxtails recipe, saying that some things should be kept secret. But he will tell me that he likes to keep cooking oxtail simple, using salt and pepper to taste, garlic, and a few herbs of your choice. The defining factor of his incredible oxtail, however, lies in the sauce. “To make a good oxtail, you have to be able to make the sauce. If the sauce is not good, then the oxtail won’t be,” Waite says. “The gravy has got to have a body. You don’t want it too thin, you don’t want it too thick. We measure it, but we use our eyes to tell us it’s ready.”
According to Waite, the trick to cooking delicious oxtail comes down to timing. As the meat is tough and wiry, it takes longer to cook than a softer meat like chicken. (Like most beef-based stews, oxtail is best braised on a stove — the shortcut of a pressure cooker compromises the timing required for the natural juices and flavors of the oxtail to seep into the gravy and vice versa). Waite starts simmering his oxtails at 8 a.m., giving enough time for the meat to cook so that it’s ready by 11 a.m., which is when Jam-Rock opens for lunch every day.
It’s one of the most popular dishes available on Jam-Rock’s menu, typically ordered with a side of red beans and rice, mac and cheese, and a little bit of gravy. Waite tells me that customers who aren’t from the Caribbean often opt for red beans and rice and steamed cabbage, whereas he’s noticed Jamaican customers prefer fresh salad, red beans and rice, or mac and cheese.
For me, the mac and cheese remains the definitive side to eat with Jam-Rock’s oxtails — creamy on the inside and crispy at the edges where it’s been baked, as delicious as the oxtail but in a completely distinct way. Live a little. Why not complement an already-indulgent meal with something just as luxurious?
Where: 6155 Woodland Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19142
Cost: Medium, $20. Large, $25.
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