Robert Lucas knows that his family’s 72-year-old eatery in Camden, NJ, will get much attention after Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” program airs on CNN this Sunday night — what with the host saying that the best cheesesteak in the Philadelphia area “might well come” from Donkey’s Place.
But if he’s not letting such accolades go to his head; Lucas gave no indication of it when NewsWorks stopped by the long-popular Haddon Avenue establishment to check whether Bourdain was actually onto something after a January visit.
Most notably, he didn’t buy into the whole Philly vs. Jersey aspect of the show’s preview, which can be seen at the bottom of this post.
“That was interesting. I don’t say it’s better than theirs. I say it’s different than theirs,” he said, just feet from a window featuring a hole caused by a bullet that wasn’t intended for the restaurant. “They do a good job. We do, too. Ours is different.”
What’s most different about the Donkey’s Place cheesesteak is the bread.
Rather than a long roll, Donkey’s has used round kaiser rolls from Del Buono’s Bakery in nearby Haddon Heights for as long as Lucas can remember. It was a matter of convenience and location, he said. Some folks seem to equate that to sacrilege, of course.
“That’s sad. It’s silly,” he retorted. “I think it’s an interesting roll with the poppy seeds. Forever, we were the only ones with poppy-seed rolls. Now, you see other places with seeded rolls. Maybe not poppy seeds, but sesame seeds or whatever. Round rolls, also.”
Lucas said he’d seen Bourdain on television before he showed up on Haddon Avenue last winter. He found him to be a “nice gentleman who ate two of the sandwiches, so he must have liked ’em.”
As for the attention, he said, “It’s exciting to say the least. Didn’t hurt our business any, that’s for sure. We’ve been getting a lot of large orders and a lot of old-time people are coming back. We were rediscovered.”
Was Bourdain right about the steak’s “sublime” standing in the region and beyond?
Well, I certainly thought so when served one directly off the Camden grill.
But, what would a group of WHYY employees think of the sandwiches when removed from wax paper about 20 minutes later? Among the opinions were:
— American cheese replacing Cheez Wiz is a plus.
— Because of the round roll, one could argue that it’s more akin to a roast-beef sandwich than a cheesesteak.
— The round roll’s absorption led to a feeling of marinated steak.
— Most said it was delicious, but not the best around.
The Jersey episode of “Parts Unknown” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on CNN.