Bite into the Z-Zoo sandwich at J's Bodega & Deli.

During a delightful evening promenade (sunset walk-turned-death march thanks to unremitting humidity) around EaDo, I noticed change was underfoot at 310 Milby St. 

Formerly occupied by the Milby Food Market, the space had a fresh paint job and a sign advertising its new tenant, J.’s Bodega & Deli. Always happy to learn of another food option in the neighborhood, I made a mental note to get takeout from the deli sooner rather than later. 

Then two rather odd coincidences occurred. I stopped at the end of my walk at (another) bodega and noticed menu flyers for J.’s displayed prominently by the register. As I picked one up, the clerk volunteered, “My friend owns that place. You should try it.” Then, when I arrived home, my husband asked, “Did you see any new restaurants on your walk? I heard there’s a deli open.”

The universe seemed to be telling me a visit to J.’s was to be paid sooner, not later. 

The menu was not “deli” in the traditional sense, but rather an assortment of straight-forward breakfast fare (bagel with cream cheese, pancakes), standard salads (grilled chicken, Caesar), and a few types of burgers. Wonderfully, you can elect to have your patty served between two tostones instead of a bun.

But if there’s one thing I have learned from obsessively scrutinizing the listed options at restaurants, it’s that even the most pedestrian of joints can have a hidden gem on their menu. At J.’s Bodega, there is one jewel, the “Z-Zoo” and, one diamond in the rough, the salchipapas.

The lone star of the not-so-special “specialty sandwich” section, “Z-Zoo” is probably an inside joke or slang, but after trying it, for me it will be another synonym for delicious. A thick mini-loaf of Italian bread liberally smeared with garlic butter forms the base of this sammie that has grilled chicken strips; multiple slices of semi-soft, semi-crispy bacon; mozzarella; and brown gravy. The Z-Zoo is then grilled until the perimeter of the garlic bread is salty, tangy, and toasted—while the interior remains soft and pillowy—and the thick blanket of mozzarella and gravy spill out over the sides. It’s messy, so you may want to consider enjoying it in the safety of your home.

The salchipapas, just by their placement on the menu with fries and plantains are considered a side option, but the famous Peruvian street food dish can easily serve as an entree. J’s version is a stack of thin-cut fries said to be seasoned with garlic, onion powder, and salt—though I only tasted the salt—and tossed with sliced hot dogs and served with plenty of barbecue sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise. The fries are served with sauces on the side because some people prefer their salchipapas naked, but not this girl. I needed no encouragement to dress my fries generously. 

In addition to dealing with the routine roadblocks to building consistency in menu execution and amassing a steady clientele that come with starting a business in a fast-developing part of town, J.’s is grappling with operating in the era of COVID-19. When I visited the shelves were half-stocked, so clearly the bodega part of the business was still coming to fruition, and while the dining area was sparkling clean, with tables appropriately arranged to satisfy social distancing requirements, during both visits I was the only patron.

They have a ways to go, but from what I have tasted, J.’s Bodega and Deli holds promise.

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