The Jerk Shack brings Caribbean cuisine to San Antonio

At the top of a wall inside The Jerk Shack are five words spelled out in large, bright letters: “It was just a dream.”

The lyrics are taken from the Notorious BIG song but they also tell the story of the origin of the restaurant. Nicola Blaque, owner and founder of the Caribbean restaurant, said she was inspired to open it by a vision she received after visiting Jamaica in 2017 for her aunt’s funeral. While there, she ate “some of the best jerk chicken I’ve ever had.”

“Honestly, I felt like my aunt was speaking to me from the grave,” Blaque said. “When I ate that jerk chicken, I was like, ‘This is what I have to do in San Antonio. I must pay homage to my heritage and use my leader’s skills to the best of my abilities.

Chef Nicola Blaque poses Monday, April 18, 2022 with some of the food from her Jerk Shack restaurant which she opened last year.

William Luther, staff member

Since opening in 2018, the restaurant has received accolades from publications such as Eater and GQ, both of which named it one of America’s Best New Restaurants for 2019 and 2020, respectively. Blaque then opened Mi Roti in Pearl’s Food Hall in the bottling department shortly before the pandemic hit, and she’s in talks to open another restaurant in Hemisfair.

Born in Jamaica, Blaque grew up from the age of 5 in the United States. She learned to cook Caribbean staples by helping her mother in the kitchen. Because her stepfather was in the US Air Force, she spent her childhood moving between places such as New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Washington State.

She then served 10 years in the US Army with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the military, her then-boyfriend husband encouraged her to pursue her passion for cooking. While attending the Culinary Institute of America, she began a career as a caterer. This led her to become a restaurateur.

Blaque designed the interior of the Jerk Shack to be reminiscent of a typical Caribbean jerk shack – a restaurant where jerk chicken is served – with wooden tables and metal chairs. Most meals are served in baskets covered with imitation newspaper.

She recently sat down with the Express-News to discuss what makes jerk chicken special, her efforts to “modernize” Caribbean cuisine, and the struggles faced by female restaurateurs in San Antonio. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jerk Shack's jerk chicken is seen on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Jerk Shack’s jerk chicken is seen on Monday, April 18, 2022.

William Luther, staff member

Q: Did you enjoy your time in the military?

A: I learned a lot. I learned leadership, I learned camaraderie – things I don’t know that a lot of people grasp in life.

Q: Have the skills you learned in the military served you well as a restaurateur?

A: In the military, they have a saying, “You never leave your fellow fighter.” I look at this mentality the same way with my business. I try to do everything I can, not only for my management employees, but for all of my employees. I try to find out about their family situation if they are going through difficult times. During the pandemic, I didn’t let anyone go. I found a way to carry on because I realized these people were counting on me to make the best decision.

Q: I imagine your experience as a logistics specialist has come in handy.

A: It feels like micromanaging, but the military taught me to be organized every step of the way. I feel like with restaurateurs you have to know every part of this process and you have to be organized with it.

Jerk Shack's fried chicken is seen Monday, April 18, 2022 with some of the restaurant's sauces.

Jerk Shack’s fried chicken is seen Monday, April 18, 2022 with some of the restaurant’s sauces.

William Luther, staff member

Q: There were two Jerk Shacks, right? Did you have to close the other?

A: I did, just because of the manpower and the situation there. I didn’t like it, so I’m focusing on this place and the future contract I have with Hemisfair.

Q: When do you hope to open your restaurant in Hemisfair?

A: I hope that by the end of this year, I could start innovating. You know, the pandemic has put a bit of financial pressure on restaurants. It is more difficult to obtain loans. Even with this restaurant, our loan, we couldn’t close on it. Because I closed for a few weeks and the banks said to me, “So many restaurants are closing and not repaying their loans. How are you not gonna let that happen? So I ended up having to take a non-traditional route.

Q: You have a restaurant at the Pearl, and you’re going to have one in Hemisfair — two of the most important places in the urban core.

A: People ask me, “Have you planned this? And I’m like, “No, I didn’t.” When the Pearl reached out to me, I was eight months pregnant with my son. It was just before the pandemic started. It happened so fast, and it was unexpected.

Jerk Shack's Chicken Curry is seen on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Jerk Shack’s Chicken Curry is seen on Monday, April 18, 2022.

William Luther, staff member

Q: Was the localization successful?

A: You know, it was a learning experience, I can put it that way. Many factors can affect how your business gets there. The weather is a big problem. When we have a lot of changes – during the pandemic, tables went in, tables went out – it all affects your sales. But for the most part, I’m just happy to be there. The fact that I spread the word about Caribbean cuisine.

Q: Even though you grew up in the United States, I imagine there was a lot of Jamaican culture in the house.

A: There was. My mom wanted to make sure we understood our heritage and our food and my grandparents would send us caribbean spice care packages because some of the places we lived just couldn’t get that stuff.

Q: When did you first become interested in cooking?

A: Always always. Just watching my mom cook in the kitchen, I don’t know, since the minute I can hold a knife, probably 7 or 8, I love it. When I really discovered that it was a part of me, it was probably when I left the army. The only thing that made me happy was cooking, you know. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, used to say, “If that’s what makes you happy, that’s what you need to follow.

Chef Nicola Blaque is seen Monday April 18, 2022 at his restaurant Jerk Shack in the far northwest.

Chef Nicola Blaque is seen Monday April 18, 2022 at his restaurant Jerk Shack in the far northwest.

William Luther, staff member

Q: How is jerk chicken different from regular chicken?

A: It’s super spicy. It’s not a spicy like tangy wing, where you taste it first. It’s tastier, you know? What’s special about our jerk chicken is that we grind it in spices to give it a nice tender texture. There’s a bit of sweet and salty, then you start to taste the spice and the thyme and the onion and the garlic and then boom! You feel the heat.

Q: You consider that you are in the process of modernizing Caribbean cuisine. Could you explain how?

A: I want to eat Caribbean, it’s kind of a comfort food, you know? People are used to doing it one way. What I mean by modernizing is in the techniques, like how to do it in high volume. And the merger, right? I live in San Antonio, Texas, where most people don’t even know what Caribbean cuisine is. So I had to take my culture in the way I cook and merge it with what the city is known for, which is tacos. We’ve done things like burgers, and we’re doing lamb. It’s not so much that I’m trying to take away what Caribbean food is, but to bring more visibility to it. When you go to a city, it is very rare to find a Caribbean restaurant. I feel like if we can somehow change the techniques, rather than keeping them more comfortable and welcoming and moving where only a few of us can enjoy them, we can share with the world what is Caribbean cuisine.

Q: I noticed you had jackfruit as an option, didn’t you? So you cater to vegans?

A: My best friend was vegan, I think, before anyone was vegan. She has been vegan for almost 20 years. So I learned a lot about vegan cooking. I just said, “I’m going to do it, because I know that for people like her, it’s important.”

Q: Do you see this becoming a chain?

A: You know, I always like to revisit the story of Torchy (Tacos) and how it all started with one, the trailer. If my story happened like Torchy’s, I would just know that I helped a lot of people. You know, I look at what he’s done and the lives he’s had and the brand success and I even hope to be half of what he’s done.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your business?

A: In this city, the business community owned by minority women is so small. We all see each other at the same events. I don’t know where the disconnect is for them to open. When I decided I was going to open the restaurant, you know, sure, I was scared, but I didn’t even think twice about it. I had such a strong vision and it burned so strongly inside me that no one could talk me out of it. The obstacle, you know? I wish more women would take that leap. You know, we’re all here to support you.

Q: Do you think there are societal barriers?

A: I think there are! Because a lot of times when I walk into a room if I walk in with one of my meal chefs and my husband they automatically assume they’re the chef and they’re the owner and I just do follow For the ride. So many types of people, they just underestimate who I am. I feel like this town has some obstacles for female chefs.

Michael M. Tomlin