Cha Cha Chicken

I have to admit that my first experience with this casual beach shack serving "eclectic Caribbean" was not especially favorable, so when Michael Symon chose their coconut fried chicken as one of the “Best Things [he] Ever Ate,” I had my misgivings. Cha Cha Chicken is within walking distance from my apartment, so it was with great disappointment that I noted their staple jerk chicken to be decidedly lacking in flavor, moisture, and general presentation. I found the service lagging, the décor odd. I've since discovered that to some extent, I just needed to adjust my expectations—the kitschy outdoor-only dining area, outfitted with patio tables and slightly sticky, mismatched chairs, and adorned with colorful lanterns hanging from a floral vinyl awning has its charms, especially at night, when a second round of dinner patrons forms a snaking line down the sidewalk, everyone taking full advantage of the BYO policy. Every hand clutches a beer, while ex-frat boys push tables together to accommodate large, festive groups, drinking and dining on spicy, sweet, sloppy Island food. There is a quirky cuteness to the scene.

I also just needed to adjust my order. A couple of the offerings are misses, and the jerk chicken is not the way to go here. Chef Symon was absolutely right about the coconut fried chicken, however—it is a delight. The thick, sweet, salty, crunchy crust breaks off in chunks as you bite into the chicken pieces, and those fallen morsels of chicken skin make your sides of dirty rice and red cabbage slaw so much better. The dipping sauces are so-so; the pineapple sauce is a little too goopy and sweet for me, and the jerk sauce is spicy enough, but the flavor doesn’t excite me. The fried chicken is all you really need. The sides, two of which are included in most orders, are clearly afterthoughts, dumped haphazardly on the plate. The beans in the dirty rice are often unevenly cooked and the fried plantains are starchy, unattractive brown chunks of room-temperature cardboard. The chicken gumbo is bland, the sweet potatoes overcooked.

But don't be discouraged. There are gems to be found here. Do go for the salmon, it’s really nicely cooked and spiced with a sort of dry rub version of the jerk sauce. Do go for the jerk chicken enchiladas, I find them surprisingly flavorful. I actually do enjoy that red cabbage slaw, though it isn’t so much a slaw as a mound of chopped red cabbage lightly dressed with jerk sauce. It’s nothing special on its own, but with some bits of coconut fried chicken skin or a bite of spicy grilled salmon, it’s a nice crunchy component.

Honestly, as I survey the scene from beneath a heat lamp on the enclosed Cha Cha Chicken patio, nothing but the presence of purple beans and rice is remotely reminiscent of anywhere I've been in Cuba. But the air is relaxed, the food satisfying, and I am enjoying a funky, authentically Santa Monica evening.