If the residents of Hicksville seem unusually happy these days, chef Patrick Walters almost certainly deserves some of the credit. He is a man, after all, who has gifted them with stupendous jerk chicken — fresh from the pit, fragrant of smoke and allspice — along with oxtails long-braised in great caldrons until the meat goes soft and broth becomes gravy becomes elixir. This is food that could not be produced without time and patience, and the same goes for the chef’s takeout restaurant, Uncle Don’s Kitchen.
Walters first dreamed of having his own place as a 19-year-old kid in Kingston, Jamaica. By the time he got his wish this past May, the Hempstead resident's dream was very old, far older than the three people who made it come true — his children — and Walters was 65. Now he’s making up for lost time, and judging by the crowds at his eatery, so is Hicksville, already thoroughly smitten by his cooking.
"It hit me so fast, I didn’t know where to turn," said Walters in the kitchen of a busy Uncle Don’s, a nickname he’s had since before immigrating in 1980. "If I put out the chicken, it’s gone. I put out the wings, it flies." And the oxtail? "I go through 60 pounds a day."
"We are speechless," said Patrick Jr., who got together with siblings Tameka and Shyhiem to help launch Uncle Don’s. "This guy has been through a lot, and for him to have this at this stage in his life, I know it’s a blessing."
Besides the plates of jerk chicken, available in three sizes ($9, $10 and $13) and served with two sides (think rice-and-peas, plantains, steamed vegetables), and the mouthwatering oxtail ($15/$18, also with two sides), they come for Walters’ juicy jerk-spiced fried chicken ($8/$10/$12, yup, two sides). Word is spreading too about Uncle Don’s several varieties of Jamaican beef patties, their fillings both mild and spicy, all enveloped in a buttery crust ($2.85-$3.35).
"He’s a tough guy so he doesn’t show his emotion, but he’s really grateful," said Tameka of her dad’s success. Helping him achieve something he’s talked about his whole life has been, in a word, "heart-filling."
"I cook with love," said Walters, who by then had gone outside to load chicken onto a grill behind the restaurant. Great clouds filled the air when he opened the homemade steel drum smoker. "What I love for myself, I love for people, and what I eat myself, I feed other people."
Success has its downsides. Walters is on his feet from 6 a.m. until well into the evening, six days a week. "I wish I’d started when I was around 20!" he laughed.
"It’s a great feeling to see someone’s dream come true," said his son Shyhiem. "His legs swell every night, but he doesn’t even complain, because once you love something, you do it."
Uncle Don’s Kitchen is at 1B W. Village Green in Hicksville, 516-226-3808, uncledonskitchen.com. Opening hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.