Rob Lucas is explaining the name and the taste that have kept Donkey’s Place in Camden on the map for 75 years.
“Leon Lucas, my grandfather, was a boxer,” Rob says. “They said he had a punch like the kick of a mule. So they called him ‘Donkey.’ ”
In 1943, after Leon’s career as a light heavyweight ended, he came back to Camden and began selling his distinctive fried steak-and-onion sandwiches.
Leon bought a bar at 1223 Haddon Ave. and named it Donkey’s Place. It was popular from the start, but in 2015 business picked up after the influential chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain stopped for a bite and declared the signature sandwich sublime. He famously said the cheesesteak at Donkey’s rivaled the steaks in Philly, the cheesesteak capital across the Delaware River.
Donkey’s cheesesteak — with fried onions, American cheese, and optional crushed red cherry peppers on a seeded Kaiser roll — “should be a national landmark,” Bourdain told viewers, on CNN’s Parts Unknown.
Fans posing in “Kicking Ass Since 1943” T-shirts and other Donkey’s gear post online photos from all over the world, from as far as Iraq and as near as Philly and the Jersey Shore. Donkey’s Place is active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, too.
“We’ve gotten steadily busier,” says Rob, 41. He took over the business after the death of his dad, Robert A. Lucas, in 2015. Leon died in 1971.
“I started cutting onions here when I was a kid,” Rob recalls. “It’s been mine for 2½ years now. It’s awesome.”
Indeed. Donkey’s is a Camden original, a fun-and-funky institution with craft beer on tap, ’70s Philly soul on the soundtrack, and steaks, the star of a menu so minuscule it could fit on a business card.
“Since I’ve been coming here, it hasn’t changed at all,” says Frank Keith, 84, of Mount Laurel, enjoying a pickle-plate appetizer with friend Bill Dickson, 77, from Moorestown.
“It’s unique,” says Dickson. “That’s for sure.”
Unique, with a twist: Donkey’s Too, a Medford location run by Rob’s brother Joe, does not have a bar but has added menu items such as panzarottis and chicken fingers.
What I love most about the Haddon Avenue Donkey’s, besides its distinctive take on minimalist yet artisanal bar food, is the vibe, the mix, the merry mash-up of the Camden that was, is, and could be.
It’s a place where the decor includes a preserved walrus penis (“It goes with the tusk,” Rob says by way of explanation), a place where a friendly server named Jessie Kato expertly walks me through the provenance of each homemade condiment.
Donkey’s is a place where everyone knows your name.
“It’s like the set of Cheers every day,” Rob’s girlfriend, Mandy McNamee, says. “Someone comes in to order a sandwich and they see someone sitting at the bar they haven’t seen since high school. It’s like a reunion.”
Nikeshia Deal, who lives in Sicklerville and grew up in the Whitman Park section of Camden, is sharing a table with Cooper Health coworker Jinette Serrano on the day I visit. “You don’t get a cheesesteak like this anywhere else,” Deal says.
“The rolls are awesome, and with the onions grilled it has a certain taste, ” says Serrano, 42, of Delran, who also grew up in Camden.
“If you want a flavor that stays with you all day,” adds Deal, “you go to Donkey’s.”
I too will attest to the, shall we say, longevity of the golden grilled onions that smothered my Donkey’s steak.
Food bloggers and online reviewers are generally enthusiastic, as is the Camden Supper Club, a youthful group of city-centric foodies.
Donkey’s is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and Rob, who enjoys being home with his family in Medford in the evening, has started serving on the first Saturday of the month.
A food truck will start rolling soon, and an evening takeout window is expected to open this year as well.
And while the addition of provolone as an alternative to American cheese is a possibility, there are no plans to change the menu, much less the recipe that has brought so much success.
“We have cheesesteaks, cheese fries, stuffed cherry peppers, pickles, pickled tomatoes, and chips. That’s it,” Rob says.
“People ask for mushrooms, lettuce and tomato, chicken — and we get weird requests,” says McNamee, the mother of the couple’s 2½-year-old daughter, Sadie. “Like, for barbecue sauce.”
No plans for that, or to have Marjorie Menard, woman of few words and grillmaster extraordinaire, to change the way she keeps everything sizzling.
Leon’s hand-painted murals of sandy deserts — “to make people thirsty” — will continue to grace the dining room, where a vintage light-up Santa stays lit year-round on one wall.
And occasionally, McNamee says, someone will come in, say they’re hungry and have no money, and offer to sweep the parking lot.
“I’ll hand them the broom,” she says. “And ask them what they want for lunch.”