Philadelphia Inquirer – July 11, 2004
By Rick Nichols, Inquirer Columnist
It is a bit of Camden in amber now, Donkey’s Place is, or maybe a shrine – the dingy bar hung with photos of the founder, his dukes perpetually up; the grill steaming with steaks and onions; the back room still swathed in the original tobacco-colored mural, a sweep of Sahara, its palms chipped and faded from 60 years of wear.
This was his father’s brainstorm, his idea of subliminal suggestion, owner Robert Lucas tells me: a parched desert scene calculated to drive his patrons to drink.In fact, the only major change at Donkey’s is that while it looks like a bar (circa 1943) and feels like a bar, it is really more a cheesesteakery these days, the Lucas family’s magnificent version of the sandwich having triumphed over the booze (especially since the place now closes at 6 p.m., though an adjoining take-out window cranks out the steaks until midnight).
The old-timers have faded into the woodwork. Once upon a time during Prohibition, this was a speakeasy serving a Jewish clientele, its secret bell system still visible along with its name above the basement stairs: Parkside Athletic Club. Later its stools were graced with Polish shipyard workers and assemblers from the RCA plant and Campbell’s soup-makers dressed in telltale whites, their hair neatly netted. There were lean years after the factories left. Then came the latest wave – African American staffers from three burgeoning hospitals nearby and from City Hall.
Not a thing has changed the sandwich, though, a reshaped vision of the South Philly classic. It is as close to taking a bite of 1943 Camden as you’ll likely get. The meat is still a block of thin-sliced ribeye folded on the grill, poked at with the corner of a spatula to loosen the texture – but never chopped. The hot, chopped red pepper relish is from K&Z, the Camden pickle maker. The rolls are, yes, round, their tops set on the sizzling steaks to breathe their steam and give them character. They are the same oversize poppy-seed kaisers, baked to Donkey’s specs by Del Buono’s Bakery in Haddon Heights, just as they have been since opening day. Finally, there are the sweet onions. They were delivered in a little red wagon years ago by a vendor who lived two blocks away. Now it is his son who delivers them. They are ordinary onions. But they become special on the grill, mounded up and around the steaks for close to an hour, sucking up the beefy juice, seasoned with secret seasoning (garlic? paprika?), furrowed and plowed until they are as tender and caramelized as the onions in French onion soup, which is what Lucas’ wife, Lisa, sometimes makes from the ones left over.
It is big helpings of those onions that give the steak its personality. They’re more the signature than the steak, turning the thing into a soupy, gooey, hugely flavorful handful – the beef informing the onions and vice versa, the red pepper relish tangy against the sweet and salt and cheese, the perfect counterpoint.
It is so good – and the round roll so intriguing – that after wolfing his first one in 1998, Philadelphia’s then-Mayor Ed Rendell wrote to Lucas, urging him to move across the river. It is so good that two years ago, a Jersey expat copied it right down to the double-waxed-paper wrapper in New York’s Greenwich Village (at a place called BB Sandwich Bar) that still cranks it out seven days a week. It is so good that Lucas’ three children have opened a branch of their own in Medford. But this is the mother lode, where Haddon crosses Liberty – where the cooking is slow, and take-out orders are tucked under the grill, and hallowed boxing gloves dangle over the sands of the Sahara.
Lucas’ late father, Leon, was a fighter – a champ in his unit in World War I and, in the 1920s, U.S. amateur light-heavyweight champ. Had a punch like the kick of a mule, they say. Gave him his nickname. Left a lasting impression, that’s for sure.