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Cha Cha Chicken ~ Santa Monica

11:51 AM PDT on June 13, 2006

Cha Cha Chicken

Cha Cha Chicken ~ 1906 Ocean Ave. @ Pico Blvd.

Santa Monica, CA 90405 (310) 581-1684

I've been to Jamaica over ten times in my short life and Cuba once, both possessing a bounty of beauty in land, culture and souls, despite brutal political and economic oppression. A place like Cha Cha Chicken does not exist in either locale, although oil drums, bright colors, handcrafted artwork and shady palms are legion.

Whereas Cha Cha Chicken is a tropical oasis in a small stretch of smog-choked cityscape by the sea, most Jamaican eateries are frames in the dusty earth, with a simple grill and maybe a counter where chicken quarters are cleaved by a scarfaced butcher like ganja on a surru board, the latter often available behind the kitchen. Cuba on the other hand, has very few commercial enterprises at all and the motherland itself is not currently known for its cuisine due to a shortage of most high-quality foodstuffs, though its recipes and culinary traditions are marvelous.

Authenticity aside, Cha Cha Chicken does give you that 96 degrees in the shade escapism that we dream of when going dun south. Brightly colored bamboo fencing and pastel barrels form a perimeter from the cars zooming along Ocean; Peter Tosh's "Arise Black Man" and Bob Marley's "Africa Unite" fill the space; banana leaf-fringed palapas shade diners while brightly painted masks, trinkets and artwork peek from the bushes. And the food is quite simply delicious and soulful.

Mulato Cubano

Ropa vieja and jerk chicken enchiladas are soft and savory; the jerk is decent and good, though probably wouldn't pass muster inna di yard; coconut fried chicken is crisp with its own subtle tang; and breakfasts are a scramble of soft eggs, mozzarella and hearty sauces... (continued below)
Spicy Black Pepper ShrimpCha Cha MenuCha Cha ArtworkOil DrumsCha ChaCha Cha RegisterCha Cha TableCha Cha BambooCha Cha MaskChacha TablesPalapa Cha Cha

Our recent visit had TACO munching a famed Cubano Mulato and spicy black pepper shrimp. Our meal came fast with a smile, accompanied by overpriced, imported cola champagne and ginger beer ($3.00), which we imagine few yardies can deny. The Cubano Mulato ($7.35) was the superstar, a pressed sandwich in a crisp, but tender french roll stuffed well past the brim with soft shredded chicken, so juicy that it floods the roll, creating a supple mash with the gooey cheese, and trace prescence of pickle chips and lettuce that add a tiny compliment of flavor to the orchestra of succulence. As the chicken pours out of the simply prepared sandwich, a sweet, powerful and peppery Mojo sauce made of copious spices and pineapple gives a strong, stout flavor with a spicy kick in every dip of the fork.

Spicy Pepper Shrimp ($10.50) features durable shrimp busty with freshness and great texture, large and juicy swimming under a fine, generous layer of red-brown, piquant sauce, with a side of plantains which easily yield their fried crips skin to a chewy sweetness alongside Moors and Christians, the Cuban name for dirty rice and black beans. The quality of the shrimp and the complexity of the jerk spices make for an intriguing, thoroughly enjoyable dish with heart.

Cha Cha Chicken is a retreat in the city for those who want to feel like they are in the West Indies. It might not be the exact experience of rolling into a dust-clogged lot for finger-staining, scotch-bonnet-hot jerk straight off the grill, but it will transport you ever momentarily out of the city and into more peaceful climes. And you won't get hit up to buy any gee-gaws crafted from coconuts or bootlegged cigars.

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