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Restaurants add another chapter to jojos' long history

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Duck fat jojos are one of the favorites at the Bent Brick in Northwest Portland. The fried potatoes are a delicacy at many establishments in the city, including the Reel M Inn and Fryer Tuck's, although they're not always called 'jojos.'The Bent Brick in Northwest Portland recently revised its menu, giving its upscale recipes a down-home spin: fried pickles, baked beans and fancy jojos blanched in duck fat. The jojos caught my attention because they’re presented without explanation — and in Portland, no definition is needed. But not everyone grew up eating jojos.

I grew up in California, and I’d never heard of jojos until I moved to Oregon. I thought they were weird, until I stopped eating meat for a while, and they became my cure for fried-chicken cravings.

But I still didn’t get it. The proper and established way to eat jojos is with fried chicken, even though it’s a little redundant. They are, by definition, potatoes seasoned and cooked exactly like fried chicken — or, to be a stickler, chicken prepared in one of several special, commercially branded cooking vats.

By the early 1960s, the term jojo potatoes was used widely across the country. But not universally. They also were called home fries, wedges, spuds or tater babies — and Shakey’s Pizza trademarked the term “mojo potatoes.” But none of this explains where the word came from.

The mysterious history of the jojo is tied to a cooking device called a broaster, invented in the 1950s. Its innovation was to combine deep-fat frying and pressure cooking, speeding up the frying process considerably, so that restaurants could serve freshly fried chicken without the long wait.

The technique was invented by L.A.M. Phelan, of Beloit, Wis., who founded the Broaster Co. in 1954 and trademarked the words “broaster” and “broasted foods.” (Phelan was a prolific inventor who also built the first automatic toilet and founded a chain of frozen custard stores called Zesto, using a Zest-O-Mat custard freezer that he developed.) The company still exists, and markets seasoned, broasted potatoes, but they call them wedges, not jojos.

Another marketer of pressure fryers and seasonings, the Flavor-Crisp company, claims ownership of the word jojo. Brad French, a representative of Flavor-Crisp, referred me to Ron Echtenkamp, retired president of Ballantyne Strong, a company that sold Flavor-Crisp pressure fryers, marinades and breading. Echtenkamp is the oral historian of the jojo, and was kind enough to speak to me by phone from his home in Omaha.

According to Echtenkamp, several of his colleagues were pressure-frying chicken and fish and giving out samples at a trade show in Chicago around 1962 or 1963. The booth next to them was marketing Idaho russet potatoes, and the salesmen were cooking the potatoes between batches, to cleanse the oil. They meant to throw the potatoes away, but somebody set them out on the table.

“The next thing they know, they turned around and they were all gone,” he says. “The people at trade shows, they

grab handfuls of anything they can get their hands on.”

Somebody asked what the potatoes were called, and one of the salesmen (now deceased) replied ad lib, “Oh, they’re

jojos.”

Echtenkamp sold Flavor-Crisp fryers all over the world, including China and Australia: “They call them jojos there, too.” He recalls that a major distributor in the Pacific Northwest was the Nicewonger Co., based in Vancouver, Wash.

That company is still in business, and supplied the pressure fryer that is used at the Reel M Inn, one of Portland’s most famous chicken-and-jojos outlets.

The Reel M Inn is a dark, cluttered bar that serves jojos of classic proportions: full quarter wedges of huge, skin-on potatoes, with sides of ranch dressing. These jojos definitely win the guilty pleasure prize for their thick layer of crisp batter and tender, baked-potato-like interior. I think the chicken is a little dry, though.

Fryer Tuck’s on Capitol Highway also has been selling chicken and jojo dinners since time immemorial, but they have upgraded to fresh Draper Valley chicken, and it makes a difference. Fryer Tuck’s is the single remaining vestige of a chain of fried chicken joints that used a brand of pressure fryers called Henny Penny.

Toby Harris, current owner of the restaurant, says he believes there were six or seven Fryer Tuck’s in Portland at one time. Growing up, he says, eating at Fryer Tuck’s was a big treat, and, in fact, he could see the outlet he now owns from the windows of his childhood home.

He’s quick to point out that, actually, he doesn’t sell jojos. They’re called Little John Potatoes, made from a proprietary recipe that he purchased with the business. There’s a secret ingredient that, he assures me, would surprise me if I knew what it was. At any rate, they’re good, cut to a smaller, more manageable size, and the fresh herbs in the Little John Spud Dip are much appreciated.

Harris recently purchased another bar, Bleachers on Northwest Saltzman Road, and he says the neighborhood is

going crazy waiting for him to install the right equipment so he can start pressure-frying chicken and spuds at that location.

Jojos are doing well for the Bent Brick, too.

“They’re crazy popular,” says owner and chef Scott Dolich.

He likes jojos, he says, because they’re an iconic food and because you can taste the potato more than in French fries. He says he’s seen them served from coast to coast, especially along the eastern seaboard, but never in the San Francisco area where I grew up.

He spent a long time re-engineering the jojo to his own specifications, settling on a three-step process that takes several days and does not involve a pressure fryer. The result is a daintier, more refined jojo, with more noticeable tastes of potato and potato skin. They’re tasty — but are they really jojos?

Bent Brick, 1639 N.W. Marshall St., 503-688-1655, www.thebentbrick.com; Reel M Inn, 2430 S.E. Division St., 503-231-3880; Fryer Tuck’s, 6712 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-7737, www.fryertuck chicken.com