Courtesy photos by Christian Serwold
There’s a new kid on the block, or in this case: Vendor’s Row. Chicago-native Tai Brown is taking a unique spin on jerk chicken, a classic Jamaican dish served at his new booth, Tai’s Jerk.
Tai’s Jerk specializes in traditional jerk chicken, piled high on either a taco shell or Dorito chips. It’s then smothered in cheese and in one of many different sauces. It’s called the jerk chicken taco, Brown’s brainchild.
Cooking has been a passion of Brown’s ever since he was a child. He said he began assisting his family in the kitchen with little things, and eventually his passion evolved into learning new recipes and making full dishes.
“I’ve been cooking since I was very young, I was like a big boy. I loved to be in the kitchen. I was always watching my mother cook,” Brown said. “I became like her assistant.”
Brown said he found inspiration from those who came before him, his mother and grandmother being his main inspirations.
However, he spins the five-hundred-year-old jerk chicken recipe that his mother and grandmother used and taught him. Instead of relying on chicken thighs and legs for the dish, Brown uses the breast of the bird.
And of course, there’s the taco component.
“I wanted to make it for kids and that’s how it initially started with the taco shell,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘They’ll eat that,’ because I have a niece and she won’t eat a leg and a thigh.”
The idea of opening a food business isn’t new to Brown. While attending Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio as an undergrad, he and his roommate sold chicken sandwiches out of their dorm room.
“I had like a school store in my room and my roommate helped me run it when I wasn’t there and stuff like that and it got really big,” Brown explained. “And I’ve realized years later, I’m just doing the same thing all over again.”
Brown’s been around the food scene, but vending on Western’s campus is a new experience. He said he was still trying to get into the groove of things, specifically competing with the other vendors who have had more time to build up connections with the community.
Brown set up camp at the rotating booth at the start of spring quarter. Brown hopes to eventually move into one of the three other booths, which operate on quarterly contracts.
“Yeah, absolutely, I want to be here as a permanent spot, I know that three weeks in,” Brown said. “It’s so friendly here, the campus is pretty cool, the students are really cool, the administration and staff have come by and they’re really nice.”
If another qualified vendor wanted to also sell food on campus, the businesses would rotate on a weekly basis, according to Viking Union reservation coordinator Ash Peers.
Brown has a fierce presence on Instagram and tries to make a connection with each of his customers.
“He’s the friendliest vendor… out there! He really tries to make a connection with everybody,” second-year student Holli McKenzie said.
Second-year student Graciela Gomez had high praise for the food and the different sauces Tai’s Jerk provides.
“The chicken is well-seasoned, but the thing that makes it the best is their sauces,” Gomez said. “You know the experience that Remy has in Ratatouille where everything is exploding? Well, that’s how I felt about those tacos.”
Brown is aware of the fanfare surrounding his food and takes pride in his unique spin on the classic dish.
“This I do very, very well … from as far north as Vancouver to far south as Portland, Oregon, you can’t find anybody else [doing this] — not this particular thing,” Brown said.