Get Jerked: Interview with Amira Jackmon, co-founder

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on June 2, 2010

Although it doesn’t get as much play as its brethren across the Bay or down in LA, the East Bay does have quite a number of taco/food trucks: both new school and old school. In fact, my favorite all-time taco truck remains El Ojo de Agua in Fruitvale. Amongst thew new school, we’ve got Jon’s Street Eats, Cupkates, Liba SF and countless others. But Get Jerked is the first truck that I’m aware of to bring flavors of the Caribbean to my beloved East Bay. Amira Jackmon’s, the truck’s founder, gave me the low-down.

1) Amira, you went from corporate law to food? Huh? How’d that happen? And what’s your connection to the Caribbean, anyway? What about your partner?

Yes. I guess you could say that I went from Wall Street to Main Street. That happened when the firm that employed me for eight years let go of about 100 people in March of 2009. I was one of them. Frankly, I’m not sad about it; it’s been a good thing. I’ve always had an inclination to be entrepreneurial and have dabbled in various ventures over the years. I just never had the courage to fully take the leap on my own. I actually purchased the food truck in 2007 while I was on maternity leave with my son, who’s now almost three. It was my intention to manage the truck from home and not return to the firm so that I could stay home with my son. (What can I say…I’m a Pisces. We’re known to be dreamers!) It turned out not to be such an easy thing to run a taco truck while taking care of a newborn. So my plans got delayed a bit. The firm giving me the boot, in the end, was the push that I needed to finally get the food truck up and running. My legal skills are something that I will always have and that I utilize almost every day in my food business. I also maintain a small practice on the side that I might expand in the future as time permits.

As far as my connection to the Caribbean, I am an African-American who loves and claims all African-derived cultures as my own. I consider us the same people; my ancestors just happened to get off at a different port of call. I reconnected with the Caribbean side of my family during my freshman year of college. It happened the moment I went to my first house party. The big crew on campus at the time was the “Queens Posse” a group of freshmen girls who all hailed from the area around Jamaica, Queens, New York. During the reggae set, one of them started dancing, hands on the ground, legs cocked up in the air and feet on the wall, winding and grinding her waist against some dude to no end. Outwardly, being the nice little Christian girl from Fresno that I was, I was appalled. But, secretly, I longed to “get on bad” just the same way. It took me about four years to learn how to do the butterfly (the popular dancehall reggae move from the early 90s) but I persisted and by the time I graduated, I had it down. It’s funny because that same girlfriend, who back then teased me about being so “corny,” has become a close friend of mine. Now, she’s the straight laced, Bible toting conservative, and, while you won’t really find me anywhere dancing upside down, I do consider myself a pretty good “wind-er.” So I think there’s been a nice bit of cultural exchange between the two of us.

2) We have Korean tacos, Chinese tacos and now Jamaican tacos? Why do tacos work so well? Or is it just cause all Californians love tacos? Do you think there’s any cuisine that couldn’t be taco-ified?

I think part of it is definitely a California thing. Every good Californian loves a taco. I’m still shocked when I meet people, obviously non-natives, who tell me that they don’t like tortillas. What’s not to like about a tortilla?

But I also think that, in part, we’re witnessing an evolution of the American taste bud. If you grow up eating tacos, eventually, you’re going to long for something different. I think many of us are, frankly, a little bored with Mexican food. Recently at an event that I did, the Mexican family selling pupusas two booths away from kept coming to my stand all night for more jerk tacos. By the end of the night, they were asking me for tips on how to prepare sorrel (sold in Mexican restaurants as “Jamaica”).

It’s just like with Asian food. I would venture to say that most Americans were introduced to Asian cuisine through the Chinese. But now, I can’t think of anyone I know who regularly goes to eat Chinese. It’s either Thai or Vietnamese or Indian or something more “exotic.” My prediction is that, unless traditional Mexican restaurants step up their game and start to introduce some more complex sauces and spices, like more of the moles and sauces from areas that Americans are not as familiar with, then the Mexican restaurant will be in danger of being relegated to that place you go to when you’re hungry, and it’s late, and there’s nothing else to eat.

3) Do you really have a steel drum in the truck? Where/how do you cook the chicken? Why no roti on the menu? What about ginger beer?

I don’t have a steel drum on the truck. I actually recently did an event where I prepared jerk chicken in a steel drum outside of the truck and I plan to do that from time to time. But serving traditional jerk chicken is not really what Get Jerked! is about. I think there are other good Caribbean restaurants here in the bay to serve that market. (My favorite right now is Coconuts in Palo Alto). I’ve even heard of a jerk chicken cart in San Francisco, though I haven’t tried it yet. What I’m trying to do with Get Jerked! is to capture the attention of those people who would never really venture to try Caribbean cuisine except for the fact that it’s being offered to them in a format that they can understand: a taco, a sandwich, a burger. If I happen to attract the traditionalists at the same time, then all the better.

Roti is on the menu and I have offered it and plan to offer it again from time to time.

I might offer ginger beer in the future when I find a good supplier or find the time to make my own.

4) Growing up in Fresno, what was your favorite thing to order at taqueria/taco trucks? What does your partner make of taco trucks? What’s your current favorite non-Twittering taco truck?

I never really ate from taco trucks growing up. In fact, I can only remember there being one taco truck in Fresno at the time and we never ate from it. We cooked tacos at home. We probably cooked tacos more often than we fried chicken. It was quick and easy. Plus it was something us kids, with a working mother, could handle on our own. I can remember times as a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, downing like 12 tacos in one sitting.

My first time eating from a taco truck was actually during law school at a truck in East Palo Alto. If my memory serves me correctly, it was called Three Brothers. It’s no longer there but I believe they now have a restaurant that’s doing pretty well.

I don’t really play favorites when it comes to traditional taco trucks. To me, traditional taco trucks are all about convenience. I go to whichever one happens to be closest when I’m hungry and need something to eat that’s cheap and quick.

5) Tell me more about this shark and bake sandwich. Surely you must be able to find it here in some fish store, no? Have you ever tried to make it at home here?

I’ve seen shark in local grocery stores though I can’t say where it was from and I’ve never really researched it for use on the truck. I don’t really see a shark sandwich being in high demand here in the bay area. It’s like my former dance teacher, Carlos Aceituna (of Bay Area group Fogo na Ropa, may he rest in peace) once told me about why his relationship with his Brazilian born girlfriend didn’t work out once he moved her to the U.S.: some things don’t translate well. What may make sense to enjoy on the beach in Trinidad, where shark is plentiful, may not go over as well here in Northern California where there’s more of a concern with issues of sustainability.

Bake is relatively easy to make. But I don’t really see me offering it on the truck any time soon. That’s because what I’m trying to achieve through the truck is more life, not less life. Maybe if I had four or five good friends around me who all had nothing better to do except to sit around in a circle with me and gossip while we all rolled and kneaded bake from scratch then that might be fun. Until that day, I’d rather just go around the corner from my house to Acme Bread and order a high quality roll made locally from organic ingredients that pretty much everyone in the bay area loves and call it a day, which is what I do.

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