‘Burbs drool over PepperJax4/3/2013
From a bird’s eye perspective, the great story of 20th century Iowa was the movement of people from farms all over the state to a few cities and many suburbs. One-seventh of the way through the 21st century, nothing brings out suburban Iowa’s inner farm child like the opening of a franchise restaurant’s first local store. An Olive Garden in Ankeny and an Outback Steakhouse in Clive have been among those chains’ most successful outlets. In West Des Moines, people waited in line for hours, and even camped out overnight, to taste Chick-Fil-A sandwiches before their neighbors. Huge weekend crowds forced Cheesecake Factory to take on extra personnel when it opened a store in Jordan Creek Town Center.
Yet, I’ve never heard from anyone living within Des Moines’ city limits being excited about such openings. Have the saliva glands of suburbanites been reprogrammed by their proximity to malls full of national brand names? Should Iowa’s university sociologists and behavioral scientists study this? Such professors are currently researching quilters in Iceland and bear hunters in Japan, so I ventured out to observe the latest suburban, fast food phenomenon.
Readers had reported lines forming beyond the doors of PepperJax Grill, an Omaha-based chain that opened its first area stores recently in both Clive and Ankeny. According to company literature, founder Gary Rohwer worked “for years” with University of Nebraska meat scientists to develop a “new steak” for making Philly steak sandwiches in just 40 seconds. He patented his method of “vertically slicing” sirloin, named it Steak-EZE and turned it into the industry’s highest-selling Philly steak brand. (You can find Steak-EZE at Costco and Sam’s Club.) He later opened PepperJax in Omaha to bring “America’s best Philly” to the “quick casual restaurant” genre.
The Clive outlet operated like Chipotle-Panchero’s-Qdoba, etc. I waited in a cafeteria-style line and ordered directly from a sandwich/rice bowl/salad/wrap-maker. Fresh baked rolls slid down a conveyor belt as my sandwich-maker cooked seasoned beef with bell peppers, onions and mushrooms. Those were stored so close to the grill that their pans had blackened unappetizingly. My chef had numerous burns and blisters on her arms. After expressing sympathy to her, another chef rolled up his sleeves to reveal even more burns. These may be badges of honor, but normally chain restaurants figure out such worker safety problems before expanding.
Fresh baked, 10-inch rolls slid down a conveyor. My cook neatly pressed mine over its filling, with a soft, white cheese and turned that over, spilling nothing. I proceeded to an undersized condiment bar and waited in line to add my choices from some seven sauces and 10 dressings. Dorothy Lynch, better known as “the orange French dressing in central Iowa,” was surprisingly included.
Rice bowls and salads came with the same grill work. Any order could be cooked in jalapeno juices. Chicken and shrimp could be substituted for steak. “Vegetarian” versions were available. However, vegetables were cooked on the same grill space as meat. Shrimp were cooked on the same area as everything else, even after a guy with shrimp allergies objected. Those shrimp were super tiny and extraordinarily salty and chewy. Steak fries should have been hotter. Beans and rice did not compare well to those at Chipotle, etc. Ceramic tableware and real silverware were an upgrade from such chains’ disposable products. Tables were actually bussed. Music from the 1960s painfully played through speakers from the 1950s.
Were these “the best Philly steak” sandwiches ever? They were the saltiest I ever tasted. Their soft buns were superb, perfect for absorbing au jus. Still, I have no idea what mushrooms, let alone Dorothy Lynch, have to do with Philly steak sandwiches.
Side Dishes India Market opened at 80th and Douglas in Urbandale, with groceries and prepared foods… Food Depot in Grimes expanded to include a full-service bar and grill. CV