“I think some people have misconstrued what authenticity is,” says Nicola Blaque, the chef and owner of Jamaican restaurant the Jerk Shack, on San Antonio’s historically Mexican American West Side. “People think because everyone’s doing it, it makes it authentic. It’s not necessarily [so].” She’s right, of course. And in a city—not to mention a neighborhood—blanketed by Mexican restaurants, taquerias, and tortilla factories, she and her husband, Cornelius Massey, have carved out a niche by doing a different kind of taco.
Blaque opened the Jerk Shack on a side street in May 2018 as a walk-up restaurant flanked by two covered patios; the menu features proteins marinated in a Scotch bonnet–heavy mix of aromatics such as garlic and onions blended with allspice, ginger, and other earthy spices. The jerk marinade isn’t sweat-for-days spicy, though—at least not anymore. Blaque, a Jamaica native who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, realized early on that her spice was overwhelming customers’ palates, so she dialed it back and let the fruity flavors come through. The pineapple pico garnish adds another layer of brightness to the tacos, which feature pork, chicken, or vegan jackfruit.
Blaque knows the importance of details: she served in the Army from 2002 to 2013 as a logistics officer, which required checking the equipment, uniforms, and weapons. Her husband is also a military veteran and the clientele includes many service members.
Although the Jerk Shack also features curry dishes, ribs, braised oxtails, and other dishes, it’s the tacos that really stand out. They have attracted crowds from the beginning. “One of the main reasons I decided to put tacos on the menu is because I love how tacos have grown across the world,” she says. “You know, I’ve seen people create Filipino tacos. I’ve seen people create tacos with Canadian ingredients, such as poutine. You name it, people are putting it inside of a taco.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Year of the Taco.” Subscribe today.