Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts and Chris Attenborough on Jack & Zach Food

I feel ashamed to say it but I will: I discovered Jack & Zach Food because I had to pee on my way to the JFX farmer’s market. I’d had a lot of coffee that morning, and by the time I got a few blocks from the market I had to go so badly that the thought of meandering through the crowds to revel in tomatoes and melon sounded like a creative form of torture.

So as I took a left off Charles St., down Pleasant, I saw the sign for Jack & Zach’s over the royal blue door and thought, “Oh hey I’ve heard of them! I’ve heard they’re good. More importantly they have a bathroom!” Walking into the little restaurant, I was immediately enchanted by the 12 seat diner counter, the homey yet hip decor, and the exquisitely simple menu. “I’ll come back for food,” I thought. And beelined it for the bathroom. I know, I know – And I’m sorry.

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Later, a quick Google session told me they’re known for their homemade sausages and veggie patties, their use of locally-sourced, high-quality ingredients, and for making almost everything on the menu themselves. They took over Sofie’s Crepes old spot three and a half years ago after selling at farmer’s markets. They both graduated from Baltimore School for the Arts (hence the sophisticated composition of the interior). And they’re like 24.

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So, on a Monday afternoon Chris and I paid Jack and Zach’s a visit. A tall thin man greeted us. He paid friendly attention to the guests on the somewhat sleepy day, but would return to his seat by the register to read his newspaper. I loved that. It said, “We’re relaxed here. We love food and we appreciate you, but let’s all just calm down.” This is Jack.

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We ordered three sandwiches to split, all of which came in under $10 each:

Red Wine Fennel Sausage on a Roll
Black Bean Veggie Pattie on a Bun
Bacon Egg & Cheese on an English Muffin

1. The Red Wine Fennel Sausage – If you’re looking for aesthetics, this was by the far the most beautiful. The green arugula, the purple pickled onions, the gold housemade chips against the white plate. If you’re looking for flavor, you’re in luck here too. It was totally delicious. Rich, yet not too heavy, the fennel peeking its head in a lovely way. It could have used a bit of salt, but the peppery arugula gave a nice balance in texture and flavor. The housemade bun was slightly sweet and buttery, soaking up the juices of the sausage.

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This sandwich reminded me of my cooking teacher in Portland, Oregon, Robert Reynolds. Robert loved simple, genuine food. He loved the people who made simple, genuine food. He would have loved Jack and Zach. He would have invited them over for wine and cassoulet and talked about the beauty of fresh radish and butter and how romantic chicken livers can be. Any meal where I remember Robert is a good one. So things were going well.

2. The Black Bean Veggie Patty (pictured at top) – A caveat: I really really like meat. So generally speaking I steer clear of food built to resemble meat but is not actually meat. Chris and I diverged on the opinions here. He really liked it. I felt neutral. He got a kick of spice. I experienced a vague blandness. He liked the texture. I thought the cheese was too sharp in this context, and there was a bit too much bread. I would like to try the original version though, sans cheese. Next time. But those chips! Also made in-house by J/Z, they were amazing – salty and perfectly crisp.

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3. Bacon, Egg & Cheese on an English Muffin – Last but absolutely not least, this was my favorite. Jack lists three kinds of bread options: English Muffin, Bagel or Toast. “I hear you make your bread here?” I said, thinking if he says yes, I’ll order the toast. “We make them all here.” There is no puffing of chests in his response; that’s just the way it is. (Sidenote: Do you know what a bitch it is to make bagels?!)

This egg sandwich is what an egg sandwich should be – the egg fried just to the point of set yolk but no further, that super sharp, nearly controversial cheese (a mix of havarti and rustic cheddar that apparently they warn against giving to kids due to its intensity) was a perfect marriage with the creamy egg and buttery english muffin. And the bacon – Gee. Zus. So thick and flavorful, crispy and just the right amount of fat. Served with a side of roasted potatoes, it does not look all that impressive. But sometimes the best food is also the most unassuming.

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Finally, they also make their own ice cream, so we ordered a chocolate milkshake. I loved Jack’s response as I ordered the shake – for a brief moment, his face lit up into a flash of a smile. It was a sense of pride I think, a sense of accomplishment. “Yes!” his smile said, “The milkshake. Beautiful.”

Zach appeared for the first and only time to deliver the milkshake. And that milkshake was perhaps the best milkshake I’ve ever had. Haltingly rich and malty and chocolatey, it wasn’t too thick, making you work for it. I don’t want to work for a milkshake. I want to bask in the pleasure of the dairy and sugar. And so bask I did.

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Jack and Zach are running the type of cafe I’d run. Closed on Saturdays, local and ingredient-forward food where the aim is not elegance. Big, balanced and beautiful flavors are the aim, and it all feels refreshingly honest. Sometimes those places lean over the edge and fall into trendy and pretentious; it becomes so much about the food, that there is an apathy towards the guest. But J/Z seem to be walking that tightrope with a delicious grace.

And the fact that I discovered this place because I have the misfortune of having a bladder of a small 5 year old is crazy. But I have the sneaking suspicion they want it that way. Attention is not always the definition of success. Jack and Zach’s is most certainly a success. Now go drink a milkshake.

Jack and Zach’s is located at 333 N. Charles St. Look for the blue brick on Pleasant. Watch this lovely video while you’re at it.

Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

All photos by Chris Attenborough.

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