American, Burgers, Chicken
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Tenderjacks photo
Tracy A. Woodward/The Post

Editorial Review

Tenderjacks in Leesburg shows once again that everything old is new again.

The new restaurant is the latest practitioner of the old-fashioned method of cooking food once it is ordered, rather than serving food that is cooked and waiting. This is the kind of fast food we all enjoyed back in the days before McDonald's sold its first million hamburgers.

The menu at Tenderjacks is short: just burgers, fries, chicken tenders and a couple of basic salads, not too far from the original McDonald's menu. But here the hamburgers are hand-formed and individually cooked on a flat grill; the french fries are hand-cut and deep fried in canola and cottonseed oils that are trans-fat-free; the salads are crisp and served on real plates; and the chicken tenders are marinated in a buttermilk batter that cooks into a light crust and seals in the chicken's juices.

Tenderjacks is the fruition of a plan by Ken West and David Levitt to "raise the level of fast, casual food." Both men come from restaurant families, and both retired several years ago from long careers in the restaurant business. But they were convinced that they could improve on the menu, physical surroundings and service offered by today's fast-food giants.

The improvements are apparent from the moment you step through the door of the prototype for what may become a chain of Tenderjacks. One of the wait staff greets each diner at the front door and gives each a copy of the restaurant's menu before directing the diner to the counter to place an order. Once the order has been placed, the diner finds a table and the food is delivered there.

The young waiters and waitresses are attentive, fetching condiments or utensils (real silverware, not plastic), refilling drinks and clearing the table. "There are no trash cans in the dining room," Levitt said. "You don't have to clean up after yourself."

The dining room is a combination of comfortable booths and tables with high-back chairs, divided into several seating areas. There is even a nook for those waiting for carryout orders.

The cooking is homemade good.

The meat for the hamburgers is a special blend of Angus, prime and choice beef cuts. It's got enough fat (20 percent) for the meat to be juicy and flavorful without being greasy. The meat is delivered fresh, and each six-ounce patty is patted out by hand before being placed on the griddle. The bread -- regular white or multi-grain buns or English muffins -- doesn't overwhelm the meat nor get saturated and fall apart while the burger is being eaten.

The fries, which come with each burger or sandwich, are slender cut but have a good potato taste, though their crispiness varied. One order seemed slightly undercooked and a bit greasy, while another was crisp and light.

Levitt said the hamburgers are very much like those he remembers his mother cooking in the 1960s.

The chicken tenders, large and meaty, marinate first in a spice mix and then in the buttermilk batter, which also helps to tenderize the meat. The result is a piece of chicken that actually tastes like chicken, encased in a thin crust that never makes the chicken tough. The tenders are served with any two of 10 sauces, each made fresh daily, including ranch, cilantro-lime, Southwest remoulade and sweet Gingeraki.

Tenderjacks's motto of "Keep It Simple, Keep It Fresh" is exemplified in the salads, mounds of fresh greens that aren't drowned in dressings.

The menu also includes a couple of chicken sandwiches, chicken wings and a soup of the day. There is a children's menu that features mini-burgers, hot dogs and grilled cheese.

Unlike many casual fast-food restaurants, Tenderjacks serves a limited selection of beer and wine, along with soft drinks. But there are no milkshakes, at least not yet. "We talked about that a long time, but decided we had enough to handle to open up this business," Levitt said.

--Nancy Lewis (Nov. 22, 2007)