Pepper Jack’s, 192 North Allen St., Albany, 426-5505, pepprjacksalbany.com. Serving 10-11 Mon-Sat, 10-10 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: sandwiches and more
Entrée price range: $5.49 (three-cheese quesadilla) to $8 (several sandwiches)
Ambiance: cozy cafeteria
For some obscure-to-me reason, as I dined at Pepper Jack’s one recent day, I heard Peter Cook’s maniacal voice saying, “Where could a young couple, not too much money to spend, feeling a bit puckish—where can they go and get a really big frog and a damn fine peach?” Cook’s answer, of course, was the Frog and Peach, an intensely focused eatery.
Unlike the Frog and Peach, whose menu consisted only of a couple of combinations of the two titular items, Pepper Jack’s provides a spectrum of sandwiches. One of the founders was immersed, years ago, in Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, but saw the wisdom in opening up the possibilities. The menu spreads across a couple of large blackboards, the spectrum of selections dizzying in its variety but narrowing to a few compelling categories: Cheesesteaks. Wraps. Panini. Quesadillas. Burritos. Burgers. One-of-a-kind-ish items like reubens, clubs and combos.
In other words, if you can wrap your hands around it (and it’s a contained comestible), it probably lurks within the eatery’s repertory. Pepper Jack’s opened at the beginning of 2000 at the corner of Albany’s Western Avenue and Quail Street. Ten years later it moved to its present North Allen location.
Its history starts in the 1990s, when Chris Soden was making Philly cheesesteak sandwiches in California. He decided to return to his home town and start a pizza business, and brought in his friend Philip Stein to manage it. It didn’t take off. Going back to the sandwich concept, they took an excursion into catering, and the success of that led them to open Pepper Jack’s.
Earlier visits have sent us straight to the sandwiches, of which the Philly varieties are always worth the stop. This time, though, we took a shot at an appetizer sampler—specifically, the Cajun sampler ($7.19). It features a couple of Buffalo-wing-seasoned chicken tenders, jalapeno poppers, Cajun fries and onion rings—a festival of frying, all of it good of its kind but rendered a bit less effective for having eased into a lukewarm state. Real onion rings, though, that don’t let you chew through the onions easily, which is as they should be.
Choose a couple of dipping sauces, and heed my warning that the spicy cheese variety is what comes out of nacho-stand pumps. Other choices include ranch, blue cheese, salsa and honey mustard.
Boneless Buffalo wings by themselves are $7, served with carrots, celery and blue cheese dressing; an order of jalapeno poppers is $6. Mozzarella sticks ($6) and fried ravioli ($6) are served with marinara or raspberry sauce. And fries—Cajun, French or curly—come in two sizes ($2.50 or $3.50, slightly less for French), while cheese fries are four bucks.
The $7 garden salad includes Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli and Bermuda onions, topped with your choice of chicken (grilled, Cajun, crispy) tuna or falafel. Chicken Caesar ($6), Aztec chicken ($8, with Cajun chicken, black beans, corn and cheddar cheese) and Blue Garden ($7, with craisins, candied walnuts, blue cheese crumbles) are other greens-based varieties.
Philly cheesesteaks were a starting point for Soden, and Pepper Jack’s offers an original for $6.79 along with such variations as a chicken Philly ($6.79), steak and cheese ($7.49), mushroom-topped ($7), BBQ Bacon ($7.29) and the $7.49 supreme Philly, which adds grilled onions, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and your choice of cheese.
On an earlier visit, I sampled the fajita wrap ($7), for which I chose steak (chicken is available) with onions and peppers, guacamole and sour cream. It was made completely satisfying by sporting the correct ratio of dressings and veggies to meat.
Other wraps include Cajun chicken club ($6.69), crispy chicken Cordon Bleu ($6.69), a cheeseburger club ($6.79) with bacon, turkey club ($6) and falafel ($6) with cucumber yogurt dressing. There’s even an egg-filled breakfast wrap ($6) that also includes bacon and cheese. Of course panini are offered, each of them $6.49, and including fillings of smoked turkey, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, chicken and pesto, roast beef with horseradish mayo and a Cuban panini with pulled pork. Quesadillas include a three-cheese variety ($5.49), chicken ($6.49, Buffalo chicken ($7) and veggie ($7); burritos ($6.29 apiece) are filled with grilled chicken, steak, veggies, barbecued meats or pulled pork. Specialty sandwiches include a Cajun turkey club, corned beef or turkey reuben and roast beef and cheddar, each for $6.49. A tuna melt or pulled pork sandwich will set you back six bucks.
This time I was looking for a burger, an elusive treat. They’re described as fresh and hand-packed, and I see no reason to doubt this, although the meat in the Ultimate Cheeseburger ($7) seemed too perfectly formed and rather lost in the large, soft, very tasty bun. I seek something juicier in such sandwiches, although I appreciated the artistry of layering cheese and tomatoes and onions on the sandwich—proportions, as noted earlier, are vital to its success.
Tasty sounding variations include the Big Bleu Burger ($8), with bacon, caramelized onions and blue cheese crumbles, the cheddar and egg-topped Barnyard Burger ($8), the Pig Pen Burger ($8), made with pulled pork, bacon and cheddar.
Want it meatless? For $7 there are Falafel, veggie or California vegan varieties.
And don’t overlook the Saturday-Sunday-only Midtown Pancake Wrap ($7.49), with three eggs, bacon and cheese wrapped in a buttermilk pancake, also available with variations.
No surprise that Pepper Jack’s is a favorite with students and local businesses. It’s inexpensive and reliable, the food is produced reasonable quickly, and you’re eating a thousand times better in all respects than if you succumbed to a fast-food chain. Of such eateries good neighborhoods are built.