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Food

Why Cha Cha Chicken Rulez

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Several years ago, I used to be a Westsider and part of my weekly routine was to hit up the beach, whether playing ball on the blacktop at Venice, laying out and reading a book at Ocean Park, or people watching at Santa Monica. It was super-relaxing to be out in the sun, soaking up the ocean breeze, and enjoying the local culture. Part of the culture was stopping off at some of the eccentric beachfront shacks to grab a bite and talk with the help.

These days, I rarely get all the way out to those Westside beaches, but this past weekend, I was meeting a friend out near the pier, so we decided to eat an early dinner at Cha Cha Chicken, one of the best of the beach-area shacks. And I was happy to find that it was good as I remembered.

Cha Cha Chicken, not to be confused with Cha Cha Cha in Silver Lake and WeHo, is a shack that serves Caribbean-style cuisine. It’s actually a couple of blocks from the beach, off of Pico and Ocean, but it’s certainly close enough to trek over in your flip-flops. There’s no indoor seating: the patio area is shaded with thatch-covered umbrellas, and the walls and fences are painted with bright festive colors and murals.

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What’s so fantastic about Cha Cha Chicken is that the food is really frickin’ good, and pretty reasonable. There’s a pretty short list of menu items, but the trademark of the restaurant is its jerk chicken, served in various forms from whole chicken to wings to enchiladas to tostadas. Most of the entrees are around $8 so you don’t need to carry a wad in your board shorts. They also offer a few brunch items like chicken hash and jerk eggs.

One of the things that I love about jerk spice is the explosion of contrasting tastes that result from the sweetness of the allspice and the spiciness of peppers. The jerk seasoning from Cha Cha Chicken seems to accentuate each of those opposing flavors. When I first took a bite of the jerk chicken enchilada, I got the simultaneous rush of a sharp hotness from the spice accompanied by the cooling of a pleasant sweetness from the touch of mango and pineapple in the sauce. My throat had that rare moment of clarity, where it felt like I had eaten a cough drop, except if the cough drop had a bunch of yummy exotic flavors instead of artificial cherry.

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In addition to the contrasting flavor, I also appreciated the contrasting texture of the tostada. The tostada is prepared on a baked tortilla rather than a flattened crunchy taco shell, and served with dirty rice and beans, fresh cabbage, lettuce, and parmesan cheese. The crispness of the vegetables and tortilla subtly complemented the tenderness of the moist chicken and the smoothness of the sauce, while the rice and beans anchored the dish with a little heavier substance.

The other awesome thing they serve is their fresh juices, like watermelon, cantaloupe, or horchata. The natural sweetness of the fruits shines through, rather than an over-sugared, artificial punch. On a warm summer day, it’s the perfect refresher, almost as replenishing as the incomparable sweet tea of the South, and unlike a Red Stripe, won’t dehydrate you when you go out and brave the sun again.

Unlike many of the beachfront joints, Cha Cha Chicken stays open until 10 pm, so you can pop in even after you’ve been out doing other things. The only problem is finding parking, which as anyone who treks down that way knows, is nightmarish during the summer with the beach crowd in full force. Of course, when your biggest worry is related to how many blocks you’ll have to walk to enjoy an outing on the beautiful, if not polluted, Pacific waters, life is pretty good.

Cha Cha Chicken
1906 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90405

All photos by Ryan Young for LAist