Sometimes you find great flavors in seemingly unlikely places. In Indianapolis, ethnic eateries representing cuisines from around the world have been springing up all over town as enterprising chefs have sought out spaces combining the attributes of low rent and high traffic.
Jiallo's is a good example. An African-Caribbean restaurant in business for almost two years, Jiallo's is located in an otherwise rather forlorn strip mall along 56th Street, a little east of Georgetown Rd. Traffic flows along this route at a pretty good clip, making Jiallo's easy to miss. But if you're in the mood for some sensational Jerk Chicken served with dirty rice, it's best to slow down and pull over.
Smoky aromas, redolent with dusky spices get your attention when you walk in the door. That's a good thing, because décor is not Jiallo's strong suit. The space is large, and the walls are all but bare. A TV mounted on the ceiling in a corner provides a booming and, at times, disconcerting soundtrack. At least the thing's positioned in such a way as to be virtually invisible from the booths that line one wall. Arrangements of artificial flowers provide color.
But purveyors of this sort of cuisine are still relatively scarce in Indy, so don't let the room's minimal look faze you. Take a seat and you'll be treated like a king or queen – and served imperial portions, to boot.
As indicated, we ordered the Jerk Chicken ($12); but we didn't stop there, adding orders of Tiebdjen ($12), steamed Tilapia served with red couscous covered with steamed cabbage, carrots and tomatoes; and Attieke ($9), cassava greens cooked down into a sauce that includes pieces of meat and smoked fish and a hint of peanut butter, served over white rice.
Our server gently warned us that we might not care for the Attieke because, she said, we might find it "too African." Although we appreciated her concern, we were undeterred – and a good thing, too. The green cassava leaves were pureed to a creamy consistency with a nice, light flavor that went well with the rather hefty chunks of meat and fish.
Speaking of fish, the menu informed us that Tiebjen is the national dish of Senegal. Jiallo's version consists of a whole Tilapia served beside a heaping serving of red couscous, generously festooned with the aforementioned sauce. The fish was steamed perfectly, tender and light on the inside, while the skin conveyed a crispy, slightly spicy pop. The sauce added a tart accent.
Of the three dishes we ordered, all agreed the Jerk Chicken was champ. The serving consisted of a boned bird, the skin blackened with a rich and savory sauce, presented on a mound of red beans and dirty rice with a generous side of fried plantains. Spices permeated the chicken and rice, creating a slow, pleasurable burn. The sweet, slightly chewy texture of the plantains made a brilliant accompaniment.
Our orders were all extra large, not one of us was able to finish a portion. This concerned the chef when he came out to visit, despite our protests to the contrary. The next thing we knew, an additional serving of Jerk Chicken was presented to us to take home. It was a characteristically hospitable gesture at this place, one we won't forget.
A postscript: While Jiallo's offers a selection of nonalcoholic African beverages, beer, wine, and other grown-up drinks are not available.