“Locally owned and operated.” It’s a concept I celebrate on my blog as I pay homage to intrepid moms and pops who risk it all to compete with the ubiquitous corporate chains. I trumpet the fact that locally owned and operated restaurants can be unpredictable, that they prepare food to order instead of thawing something out which was shipped from corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away, that you can get to know the great families who own them, that those families have very personal investments and take immense pride in their products.
Justin (JJ) Salazar’s ideas as to what constitutes “locally owned and operated” mirror my own. In his words, local should mean that “a business is owned by someone who lives in town (not just a mailing address), that there is no parent company (franchise) taking the proceeds to another town, and that the owner works in the business.” JJ knows that “nobody cares as much as an owner and that it does no good if the owner’s not in the store.” He plans on passing on his business to his children so you know his heart is in his investment.
J.J. grew up in Albuquerque, just a couple of blocks from Central Avenue in the UNM area where he frequented Nunzio’s, then the undisputed best independent pizzeria in town. As a teenager he was fascinated with the art and science of cooking, particularly the chemistry and processes that create different breads. This knowledge served him well as he moved up the ladder from driver to general manager in one of the busiest Pizza Hut franchises in New Mexico.
His time at Pizza Hut served to intensify his appreciation for independent pizzerias, an appreciation he would nurture in California where he immersed himself in studying and training for the day he would launch his own independent pizza restaurant. It would take borrowing from every source he could find before J.J. would realize his dream, the type of personal investment many mom and pop restaurant owners make in their restaurants. The price of a dream can be very costly.
From the outside, J.J.’s Pizzeria resembles many other independent pizzerias with little of the flash and panache of the behemoth pizza chains which are ultimately more style than substance and whose copycat products reflect the impersonal investment of their parent chain. When you walk in, don’t expect the typical rehearsed wait schtick of insincere chains. J.J. himself greets you as he might a guest at his home. It’s yet another aspect of independent restaurants I appreciate.
Positioned above the counter at which you place your order is a menu which at first browse resembles the menu of many a pizzeria. Pizza is available in small (a personal size eight-inch beauty), medium, large and extra large sizes. A panoply of specialty pizzas includes meat lovers options (including a barbecue beef pizza) as well as vegetarian friendly pizzas. You can also construct your own from a phalanx of available ingredients. Eleven different hot subs, calzones, salads and even spaghetti are also available.
On one corner of the restaurant are positioned three video games. No, not the modern hand-held video games. J.J.’s got the precursors of today’s innovative digitally enhanced multi-platform games. These are the video games of the 1980s, the type of which could be found in drugstores, laundromats and game rooms two decades ago. J.J. grew up playing these games and still has a soft spot in his heart for them.
So what makes J.J.’s pizza different? It certainly starts with the crust. Dough is made fresh from scratch in the store every day, a recognition that living dough makes better bread than frozen dough. The crust has deep hues of brown and gold, the speckled char to which all great pizzas aspire. The crust is baked in a Middleby Marshal PS260 pizza oven which cooks hotter meaning the dough never comes out doughy and all the toppings are cooked thoroughly. Only 100 percent never-frozen, real mozzarella cheese is used on each pizza.
During my inaugural visit, J.J. himself recommended the Ranchero (pictured above), a personal sized pizza topped with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon and green chile. It was an astute recommendation from an obviously very proud owner. The Ranchero is an excellent pizza! It arrives at your table steaming hot and cooked all the way through. The crust is pliable, with enough bend that it can probably be folded like New York style pizza. It is a terrific crust, the type of which will remind you of great bread right out of the oven. The sauce is thick, well-seasoned and hearty. The ingredients, particularly the green chile, are top notch. The green chile has a nicely roasted flavor and just a bit more piquancy than most Duke City pizzas.
Being an independently owned and operated family business means you have the latitude to do what you want; you don’t have to follow the corporate regimen. If you ask for a unique combination (within reason), JJ’s can prepare it for you. You can, for example, ask for a half Ranchero (pepperoni, ground beef, bacon, green chile) and half barbecue beef and it will be delivered to your table.
The barbecue beef pizza is topped with handfuls of barbecue beef and red onion, each slice offering some of both. The beef has a faint smokiness and is imbued with a sweet and tangy sauce. It’s the type of beef which would go well in a barbecue beef sandwich–which is a good thing because the menu offers it as one of eight hot subs–ranging in size from five-inches to ten-inches–on the menu.
The hot subs include turkey, Italian, roast beef, Albuquerque turkey, BBQ, club, ham and meatball. You can also opt for a calzone, either a create your own (up to three pizza toppings) or have one of J.J.’s specialty calzones.
The menu also includes sweet stuff sure to please. For under two bucks, you can have an entire dozen of cinna-munchies, fried dough generously sprinkled with cinnamon and glazed with a white frosting. They’re surprisingly good, especially right out of the oven when they’re warm and beguiling.
Albuquerque has a surprising number of very good independent pizzerias. When J.J. Salazar entered the fray, he knew his product had to be a cut above in order to compete. It is! If personal investment, a terrific product and owner involvement count for anything–and they should–J.J.’s Pizza will win over a discerning Duke City market.
4111 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2009
1ST VISIT: 1 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Ranchero, BBQ Beef Pizza, Cinna-Munchies