The recipe for a successful restaurant is equal parts location, cuisine and that indefinable something that keeps diners coming back.
Off-the-beaten-track locations have the potential to be deal breakers for some and destinations for others. A 1920s auto garage that did time as a gun and grocery store before winding down a decade ago as a bland BP gas station may have looked like a gamble for owners John and Wendy Yohman. Most of Ashland’s restaurants are located closer to the Center of the Universe than their new spot, Jake’s Place Restaurant & Market.
Food fans flock to this simple but convivial spot, so waiting isn’t unusual at any time of day. In many ways, it’s a fitting way to ease into the low-key feel of the menu and ambiance. Toto, we’re not in Richmond anymore, so let’s just stop and smell the Ashland flowers.
Rocking chairs line the front porch. Inside the door, a hutch holds local buckwheat honey as well as sauces and salsas from Yohman’s Gardens, the couple’s produce farm in Hanover County. A jar of Tootsie Pops sits on the counter. Once you sit down, look under your table and you’ll likely find it balanced on an antique sewing machine treadle. Walls boast a gallery of local artists and bucolic Ashland scenes, a visual treat to pass the time when the dining room’s full.
Or sit back and enjoy the heady scent of the smoker. Chicken, pork and brisket are slow cooked over three types of wood, and on one visit, pork has sold out by midday. I overhear a regular behind me extolling the glory of the hand-sliced Angus beef brisket ($8) on grilled challah bread with slaw to first-timers.
“I like mine with two eggs over easy on top,” he recommends. Even without eggs, it’s a well-smoked handful of a meal.
Call me weak, but an attempt at eating green is shortly derailed when I see that I can add pulled pork ($3) to my spinach salad ($7). Spinach, red onions, mushrooms and tomatoes are buried like bodies in Pompeii — not under volcanic ash, but a far tastier heaping mound of succulent pig that negates any possible virtue in eating salad.
The bounty of the Yohman’s garden is evident all over the starter menu. Fried green tomatoes ($6) are more pink than green, but a delicate batter, feta cheese and rivulets of buckwheat honey make me colorblind.
Keep your eye on the specials board for riffs on their usual Byrd Mill hushpuppies ($5). If the corn-and-crab version ($6) is battling for a starring role on the menu, then ring the bell, we have a winner, well earned with lumps of sweet crab and corn enhanced by honey butter.
At Jake’s Place, portions are as oversized as Confederate flags along Jeff Davis Highway. A brick of smoked beef and pork meatloaf is ringed with bacon, splashed with John’s secret marinara sauce and redolent of wood-burned flavor. Should you prefer surf to turf, reel in a catch of Southern fried catfish nuggets, hand-breaded and fried just enough to accent white, lean and firm fish flesh.
After opening to almost immediate crowds, the kitchen is still getting its footing. A belly burger ($11.99) lacks any hint of the promised pork belly. Our server’s too busy to help when a black bean burger ($7) arrives as dry as the Sahara because the kitchen has left off the Yohman’s salsa. Roasted red pepper hummus ($5) is dropped off with fresh, not roasted peppers, and absent the feta promised. Three visits convince me that the restaurant’s servers are pleasant, but could use more seasoning.
With beer and wine only, check any thirst for fancy cocktails at the door. Your best bet is drinking truly local — less than six miles away — offerings from Center of the Universe Brewery on draft ($4) alongside domestic beer ($3) and Virginia cider ($4). As happens too frequently, Virginia wines are completely left off the wine list ($5.50-$11).
At Jake’s Place, the green beans are long-cooked, the baked sweet potato sings with cinnamon butter and its collard greens would hold up anywhere in the South. You’re unlikely to forget that meat reigns supreme here, and if you do, a glance at the back of the servers’ T-shirts says it all: Good food. Good meat. Good Lord. Let’s eat. S
Jake’s Place Restaurant & Market
Tuesdays-Fridays 11 a.m-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Saturdays 8 a.m.-2.p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Sundays 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
511 Thompson St., Ashland