Cha Cha Chicken is the sort of place that every beach town needs. It celebrates the greatest of beachside culinary institutions: the Caribbean island snack shack. The whole place is decked out in bright paint with license plates from around the islands. The soundtrack hovers around Calypso and Reggae. The menu has nods to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, with a unifying focus on chicken dishes.
The signature dish is called cha cha chicken, which is a saucier take on jerk chicken. Typically jerk chicken is fire-grilled and has some smoke to it, but Cha Cha roasts it. This method sacrifices char for succulence, a fair enough trade-off, but not the one we would chose. The jerk sauce is a sweeter than hot, saved by coarse chunks of black pepper and allspice. Still, it did not satisfy our craving for smoky, spicy jerk chicken.
If you like your bird fried, Cha Cha does it with coconut in the batter, adding a tropical twist. This comes with mango sauce, which makes sense with the coconut; but we thought it was too sweet. Jerk sauce is a better choice for dipping. All considered, it is a pretty solid plate of fried chicken.
The best choice for a side with chicken is black beans and dirty rice. This combo is a great example of the sort of spicy, rib-sticking food that is the core of Caribbean cuisine. It tastes fresh and it is perfectly seasoned. It doesn’t suffer from the old steam-table dryness that affects rice and beans at many Caribbean restaurants.
Ropa nueva is a twist on the Cuban classic ropa vieja, done with pulled chicken instead of skirt steak. We tried the old and new versions, and both are recommended. The long stewing and shredding of the meat makes for a juicy, spicy pile of protein.
Jerk enchiladas are Cha Cha’s best dish. The shredded chicken “ropa nueva” is stuffed in corn tortillas and covered in both mango and jerk sauces and finished with minced chives. It’s a smart fusion of Southern California and the sunny blue Caribbean — perfectly matched with the black bean and dirty rice side and some plantains. That is exactly what we’ll order on upcoming return trips. This time we got the enchilada as a combo with a jerk chicken tostada, which was also a nice plate of food.
Besides the obvious lures of good food and a location at the tail end of historic Route 66 right off the Santa Monica pier, Cha Cha Chicken is popular for its BYOB policy. Almost everyone brings a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, or even a bottle of rum. Caribbean rum would be a nice spike for the tasty Augas Frescas offered in such refreshing and tropical flavors as mango-guava and watermelon.