Move over, half-smoke: There's a new sandwich in town.
Okay, the subs at JJ's Cheesesteaks are not exactly taking over Washington's culinary turf. But they are adding flavor to the neighborhood. Tucked into the southeast corner of the continually booming intersection of 14th and U streets in Northwest, the small eatery devotes itself to the Philadelphia favorite.
The family members behind JJ's hail not from the City of Brotherly Love. They are from Falls Church, and this is not their first food business. For 25 years, David Hawa owned and operated Venice Pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park. He closed up shop and retired in 2001. Last October, he got back in the game to help his sons, Omar and Ali, open JJ's Cheesesteaks in the space that was previously 14U Cafe.
Bar hoppers, take note: JJ's stays open Friday and Saturday nights until 4 a.m. Of course, the place is open all day for those less inclined to eat in the wee morning hours. We stopped for late-night and midafternoon sessions; each visit tested our patience.
Everything is made to order, so be prepared to wait about 15 minutes at one of the handful of comfortable tables. If you're in a hurry, call ahead. Make sure you come hungry; the sandwiches are big. Of the eight sandwiches (all $5.75) on JJ's menu, we liked the Ben Franklin best. It's a classic cheesesteak, juicy but not too greasy, with a few sauteed onions included. If you like heat, give the Firehouse 14 a go. That's the same sandwich, with loads of jalapenos and hot red peppers. Both are made with fresh rib-eye and the obligatory slathering of cheese sauce.
There's no salad on the menu, but the Liberty Bell is a relatively light alternative to beef, with chunks of grilled chicken, melted provolone, onions, lettuce and tomato. The Balboa Italian Hoagie features turkey ham, bologna, salami, provolone and American cheese. Or you can create your own U Street Special for $7.75. Fries ($1.65; $2.65 with cheese) are hand-cut, skin-on and satisfying.
JJ's, named for Omar and Ali's nieces, Jude and Jawen, uses bread from Amoroso, the famous Philadelphia bakery. "Everything we have is fresh, and we cook right in front of our customers," Ali says. But why aren't the brothers following in their father's pizzamaking footsteps?
"He also had cheesesteaks at Venice," says Omar. "And they were really popular." We can understand why.
-- Catherine Barker (Good to Go, Jan. 20, 2010)