Critics. Who needs them? "He's so over all this publicity," the voice on the phone said about the owner when I called to fact-check. OK, but I just found you guys, thanks to a CL reader. Visiting highly touted, glossy press release eateries lacks the appeal that discovering an out-of-the-way place has. The lure of the unknown, David versus Goliath, the "outside the beltway" place -- that kind of thing -- will always win with me. So I keep my ego in check as I repeatedly call Jake Stegall to make sure I've spelled his name correctly.
Jake's Good Eats is one of those crowd-pleasing places that have developed a loyal clientele, one customer at a time. And that's saying a lot during an economic "downturn," the only "D" word the pundits will use. Perhaps the building itself exudes a sense of confidence; after all, it's been through a lot. In 1929, Deck Lemmond opened it as a Gulf filling station that stood its ground until the 1970s. Through the Great Depression and World War II, when gasoline was rationed, this outlying spot on Albemarle Road housed the business successfully. Daughter Sue Lemmond Helms (the vegetarian entrée is named for her) still owns the property, which during the last three decades has served as a real estate office, a pottery store, even a Japanese restaurant briefly. In late June 2008, the Stegall family brought the old building back to life with the opening of Jake's.
Much of the original structure remains. The slamming screen doors confirm that this spot opened long before air conditioning and pneumatic closers. If you grew up in the South, especially the rural South, you will recognize Jake's. Here, neighbors once exchanged information outside the store on brutal summer days, cooling foreheads with a cold bottle of Coke.
Today, patrons are greeted by Jean Stegall, mother of chefs Jake and Gordon, in the front area with the original shelving from the old-style convenience store, a Coke cooler, and a player piano. The ambiance is old-styled checkerboard nattiness. The small dining room in the rear is located in what had been the service bay. The music and the décor match: Oldies pour out from the speakers and the wall features an eclectic mix of memorabilia including a Frostie Root Beer clock and a sign for pig vaccines. Although there are two booths, the majority of seating is at tables, and these are set with Mason jars for drinks and shop "rags" for napkins.
The Stegall brothers grew up not too far from the restaurant. Jake Stegall attended Cane Creek Elementary before the family moved to Salisbury. He briefly attended the culinary program at Cape Fear Community College before helping friend Richard Reamer open Dick's Dogs & Burgers in Wilmington. After that, he returned to this area doing burger and hot dog catering from a pull-behind trailer. That led to Jake's Good Eats, which the brothers built out from the floor up.
Jake's menu is pure Southern -- both old-style and new. Tipping the hat to the area's Latino ethnic majority, the starter menu offers a quesadilla with a rural Southern twist: venison with gooey Monterrey Jack and a side dip of jalapeño jelly. Meanwhile, Jake's pimento cheese is laced with RO*TEL tomatoes. Salads, including the Caesar, are overly abundant. However, the best of the apps is the crispy cornmeal-embraced oysters paired with a tartar sauce drizzled with Sriracha. The cascade of goodies continues with the fried green tomatoes urbanized by the bed of braised leeks.
Entrées offer more to like. The stellar number here is the thickly cut pork chop smothered in maple sweet, and sided with garlic mashed potatoes and candied apple wedges. Sure it's sweet: It's Southern. Meanwhile, the other items on the table are being woofed down. The mac and cheese is penne lightly doused with a cheese sauce and harmonized with unfussy barbecue chicken. Wonderfully smoky blackened flounder straddles a spot-on country ham grits cake. These were all better than the crawfish and shrimp "etouffee," which lacked roux and seemed to be more of a tomato-based affair over pallid rice.
Deny yourself dessert? Don't do it. Mama Jean makes these -- along with the biscuits -- with her apprentice and future daughter-in-law Jamie. The banana pudding, a recipe from Jake's paternal great grandmother, is better than most I've tried, while the chocolate and peanut butter pies are everything to make your mouth happy.
Sandwiches, including a fried oyster po' boy, are served all day. The fried bologna sandwich is named for neighbor Mr. Horne, who requested it as a special, but now is on the permanent menu. The barbecue is imported from Greensboro; Stegall notes correctly that barbecue is a food that needs 100 percent attention to be done right. Specials are offered at lunch and dinner daily. Entrée prices range from $8 for a vegetarian plate to $19 for a filet mignon.
The Stegalls made the decision not to serve alcohol on principle. So it's the food and friendly service that keeps the crowds coming. A hungry critic, too, however humbled.
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