It was a warm April morning in Humble, and Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ squinted through the smoke as he leaned over a grill made of concrete blocks and metal grates at Houston BBQ Fest. Standing on the unshaded concrete lot, sweat poured as he flipped dozens of chicken legs for the crowd gathering at the gate. Gatlin and his executive chef, Michelle Wallace, had marinated the chicken for 24 hours in a jerk sauce they were testing for the first time on a large audience. I got an early sample and was quickly smitten. When I would get to taste this at their restaurant was my next question.
Wallace and Gatlin said the jerk chicken would be on the menu at their new restaurant when it opened, but they wanted to make sure the flavors were dialed in. Those drumsticks were fall-off-the-bone tender with a nice char, and the warmth from the jerk seasoning was more inviting than challenging. When Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers opened in July, the jerk chicken made the menu, and I had a new dish to covet. I finally made it to the new spot this past week for a late lunch. Though the jerk chicken is only on the dinner menu, Wallace said they can make it for anyone who asks at lunch.
In the Gatlin’s BBQ kitchen, the cooks brine half chickens for a full day in water infused with allspice, habanero peppers, garlic, and green onions. The brined chicken is then transferred to the thick jerk marinade for another full day before getting smoked, chilled, and transferred to the sister restaurant, a little more than two miles away. At Fins & Feathers, the chicken is grilled to order by chef Darius King and paired with coconut-lime rice. “Hopefully the rice has a cooling effect for the spice of the chicken,” Wallace said, but I think Texas diners can stand a little more spice on their meat. On the plate you’ll get four pieces of chicken with a color as deep as gumbo. Fight to secure a leg or a thigh when it hits the table. Though I had some doubts about reheated chicken, the meat remains incredibly juicy, and the skin is crisp.
The Fins & Feathers menu melds Southern cuisine along with New Orleans touches—such as red beans and rice, barbecue shrimp, and a dark-roux gumbo—and Mexican influence like the roast duck with mole rojo. Though Wallace, who hails from St. Louis, and native-Houstonian Gatlin don’t have family recipes for jerk marinade, Wallace noted the connection between the transatlantic slave trade and modern Caribbean cuisine. “It stems from us traveling over from Africa, depending on where we landed and what we had access to,” she said, adding, “our jerk chicken that we serve today is an homage to that.”
They also wanted variety on their menu, so as not to pigeonhole the Black-owned restaurant with a Black chef and Black executive chef as serving soul food. “Things are very soulful, but it’s not soul food,” Wallace said. While the restaurant’s name might suggest it simply serves chicken and fish, “this space gives us a way to be creative beyond barbecue,” Wallace said. To me, that was most evident in the catfish sandwich, impeccably fried and topped with Viet-Cajun hot sauce. The sauce, made of onions, garlic, lemongrass, and Thai chiles, didn’t coat the fish—letting the edges retain their crunch—and the burn was tamed a bit by the fresh basil slaw inside the brioche bun. It struck me as a particularly Houston brand of fusion cooking that can also be found in the appetizer of fried chicken wings, which are crunchy beneath the spicy miso glaze sweetened with honey.
Smoked jerk chicken is what drew me to Fins & Feathers, but there’s so much more to enjoy, even for barbecue lovers. At lunch, you can get a smoked chicken salad sandwich and a smoked turkey club topped with bacon and cheddar. The dinner menu includes smoked chicken enchiladas. But it seems to me those classics will likely get starved for attention next to the Caribbean import.