Looking for Jamaican cuisine   in the area is liable to take one a bit off the beaten path, where transplant restaurateurs trade primo real estate for authentic tastes and community flavor. Off Dr. Martin Luther King Way, Gloria Jones holds court over her second Jamaican American Soul Food Restaurant, picking up stakes from the Bradenton location and establishing herself as a weekend music joint serving up oxtails and collard greens right next to the dance floor. Up in Palmetto, just across the bridge, Rodney’s Jamaican Grill runs through three buckets of jerk seasoning a week to keep customers happy, and plans are already underway to expand into the neighboring space and add a second dance floor. And right off Ashton Road, hidden from sight and far too easy to miss, lies Audrey’s Jamaican Cuisine. 

Beating the rush at Audrey’s Jamaican Cuisine is a fruitless task. Open at 11am, only one of the handful of tables remains empty by 11:20. Most are regulars, some are neighbors—several can’t make the trip, but a steady flow of delivery drivers with GrubHub and UberEats decals on their cars spread the gospel of Audrey far and wide like culinary missionaries peddling spicy salvation. True believers, however, make the pilgrimage.

Because a trip to Audrey’s Jamaican Cuisine is about more than the Jerk Chicken (super-spicy and all-around awesome), the rum cakes (an intoxicating staple shipped around the country) and curried goat (you get the point), it’s about stopping in to see Audrey, and smiling back. Raised in Kingston, regular visits to the countryside meant hours in grandma’s kitchen, preparing meals for the family with ingredients from the gardens out back and learning the secrets of authentic Jamaican cuisine. Audrey’s sisters busied themselves elsewhere; she soaked it all up like chicken in a brown stew. “She was a great old lady who knew everything,” says Audrey of the old matriarch, who lives on largely, and specifically, in Audrey’s right hand. “My right hand knows everything when it comes to seasoning,” she laughs. It’s years and years of muscle memory, passed down from the best cook she ever knew, and there’s a reason “sinister” used to mean “left-handed.” But there’s nothing sinister about Audrey—in fact, if the food weren’t so good, one may suspect the regulars return in large part for the banter, as Audrey goes table to table to take a moment with her friends and ask about their meal. “It’s terrible,” jokes one and they all start laughing. “I’m gonna find something to hit you with,” Audrey shoots back, laughing and flipping her towel in his direction before returning to the kitchen and setting that right hand to work.

She re-emerges with a signature Audrey’s feast—two hot and juicy servings of her jerk chicken, a cup of homemade mango chutney, a heap of salted cabbage and carrots and some baked plantains, sticky and sweet. Jamaican staples such as oxtails and ackee and salt fish can be found on the menu as well, but the jerk chicken draws the most, Audrey says, and, after one bite, it’s easy to understand why. Succulent on the inside, with a light crisp to the skin keeping it all in, the meat is prepared near perfectly, but it’s the heat—coming on like a slow burn and lingering on the palate—that addicts. “A lot of people try to cook jerk chicken,” says Audrey. “But you can’t do it right without the right spices.” She uses a complex combination of thyme, garlic, allspice and more, including scotch bonnet peppers fresh from the pot out front. It may not quite be grandma’s country garden, but the spirit remains. For those looking for a little sweet to balance the spice, let Winston, the local “water proficiency expert,” bring a glass of sorrel, a hibiscus-based traditional Jamaican beverage, to wash it down.

Audrey’s come a long way from where she started, hawking her famous rum cakes, but that doesn’t mean she’s one to rest on her laurels, and dreams of a bigger restaurant to share even more Jamaican flavor. “The island has so much to give Sarasota,” she says.