Restaurants that keep their doors open year after year interest us. They must be doing something right to endure economic slowdowns, food trends, and intense competition. And Jakeeno’s has been going strong since 1975. It’s survived Generations X, Y, and Z.
What’s the key to Jakeeno’s longevity? Comfort. It’s familiar, unpretentious, and low-key. The staff is easygoing, and the customers clearly pick up the vibe. Even when busy, there’s none of the hustle, bustle, and, well, stress (on the part of staff and diners) that often characterize the latest “it” spots. Seemingly impervious to flashy trends, Jakeeno’s and its regulars are refreshingly comfortable in their own skins. Why else would we see such an embrace of what we’ve nicknamed the “Jakeeno’s lounge” — a laid-back posture more common on porches than in restaurants?
A little sign over a little table near the front of the restaurant won our hearts. It reads, “The table by the door is ‘The Worst Seat in the House.’ Dine here and receive 15% off your meal.” Now get this: The deal applies year round, and even when there are other tables available. Hell, when we inquired about the sign, our server encouraged us to move one table over and get the deal. (Though too earnest to move, we appreciated the suggestion.) Speaking of deals, Jakeeno’s has them all: cheap date night, happy hour, and all-you-can-eat pasta, to name a few.
Like the atmosphere and service, the food is comforting. It’s what “throwback” Italian-American restaurants throw back to. Unlike Mucci’s in Saint Paul (which we adore), Jakeeno’s doesn’t update the classics. In fact, we doubt the recipes have changed much over the last four decades. Of course, red sauce is the cornerstone of the menu: rich, flavorful, and slightly sweet (thankfully not too sweet), it’s well suited to pasta, pizza, and hoagies.
Of the pizzas we tried, a simple pepperoni pie (large, $16.45) stood out. Jakeeno’s crust is thin and well balanced (not too salty or sweet) and sturdy when not weighed down with too many ingredients. Although it lacks the snap associated with “cracker crust,” it holds its own. Covering thin slices of zippy pepperoni, the cheese is nicely browned without being burnt. As much as we enjoyed this option, we didn’t care for Jakeeno’s margherita (large, $21.75): The cheese was too thick, and the overwhelming garlic and flavorless tomatoes were way out of balance.
The stuffed shells ($10.25) were standard issue, but delicious in a simple, comforting way: Three big pasta shells stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, swimming in a sea of zesty marinara. This is the essence of uncomplicated, appealing Italian-American fare — straight up, no twist.
Unexpectedly (at least for a neighborhood pizza joint), Jakeeno’s deliciously simple antipasto salad (half, pictured above, for $4.50 or large for $8) may be our favorite dish on the menu. With crisp romaine, green bell pepper, croutons, black olives, shredded mozzarella, pepperoni, mushrooms, tomatoes, red onion, and basic Italian dressing, it’s impressively fresh and pairs well with the restaurant’s rich (and in some cases, enormous) entrees. The salad would be even better if the kitchen used better tomatoes or substituted peperoncini for bland romas.
But back to comfort: Few foods are more soothing than hoagies and cake. Jakeeno’s meatball sub ($8.50) is on point — chewy roll, red sauce (of course!), and flavorful, juicy meatballs (these are good, but don’t reach the heights of those at ie Italian Eatery, our current favorites in the area). We appreciate that the hoagie isn’t drowned in sauce or suffocated with cheese.
And though it lacked a distinctive coffee flavor, we greatly enjoyed the chocolate mocha layer cake ($4.50). Made in house, the surprisingly light dessert reminded us of a chef’s interpretation of a Hostess snack cake. It’s clearly one of many reasons people — including us — will return to Jakeeno’s again and again, keeping the restaurant afloat while so many trendy competitors founder and sink.
James Norton contributed to this review.
Italian-American fare in South Minneapolis
3555 Chicago Ave S, Minneapolis
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes (soy cheese)
ENTREE RANGE: $8.50-$22.50
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sat-Sun 3 p.m.-11 p.m.
PARKING: Lot and street