CAMDEN, NJ—Rob Lucas, Jr. grabbed a bag full of chopped onions from out of the fridge, dumped them on to the grill and took a spatula in each hand. A quick jab with his right hand slid the spatula under the mountain of roaring onions — his wrist flipped, and in an instant the onions were golden brown.
At the same time, the spatula in his left hand reached for a sizzling stack of shredded steak. With a left hook, he slid the steak across the grill toward the onions. He then piled the grilled onions high on to the steak, threw a blanket of american cheese on them, and gently lifted them up onto a pillowy poppy seed kaiser roll.
And just like that, Lucas had made a world famous Donkey’s Place Cheesesteak.
“At the bar, I try and stay off the grill but it never happens,” Lucas said while tending to about a dozen of steaks on the grill.
However today, three years ago to the day that Lucas took over the family business when his father Robert Lucas, Sr. died; and 75 years after it was founded by his grandfather Leon Lucas; the cheesesteaks were not being served at 1223 Haddon Ave. in the Parkside neighborhood.
Instead, Lucas was serving cheesesteaks out of the Donkey’s Place food truck in front of Camden City Hall, and minutes later, Lucas would be presented with a key to the city.
In honor of Donkey’s 75th anniversary, Mayor Frank Moran, along with city and county officials, proclaimed July 31 as “Donkey’s Day,” and presented Lucas with a key to the city — the first Moran has handed out as mayor.
“Most of the credit has to go to my dad,” Lucas said after being presented with the key. “I wish he could be here with us.”
Donkey’s Place was founded in 1943 by its namesake and Lucas’ grandfather, Leon Lucas. Leon, a boxer who fought on the 1928 Olympic boxing team, was said to have a punch like the kick of a mule, and thus earning him the nickname Donkey. In 1971, Robert Lucas, Sr. took over the business and in 2015, Lucas, Jr.
“When the industrial might left the city, Donkey’s suffered — but they stayed firm,” Moran said. “Today we get to honor them 75 years later ... I hope that they will be here another 75 years.”
Moran, whose usual order is a cheesesteak with light onions and hot peppers, said he remembers first being introduced to Donkey’s when he was 10-years-old.
“All I remember was that we had a piece of a Donkey’s steak, but it was truly delicious,” Moran said.
For many people from Camden County, a stop at Donkey’s becomes part of a family or friends tradition.
Freeholder Jeff Nash said it's a campaign tradition to stop at Donkey’s on election day, “and we haven’t lost yet.”
But, the freeholder warned, “You can’t eat Donkey’s and not workout.”
“It’s iconic,” Nash said. “The tradition of this city matches the tradition of Donkey’s. They are one in the same … Donkey’s belongs in the heart of Camden City.”
Parkside resident Judy Grice, who in addition to getting onions gets ketchup and mustard on her cheesesteak, said she has been going to Donkey’s once a week since she was a teenager.
“I remember when they were $6,. Now they’re $10, but a little bit thicker, still juicy, and still the same, same everything,” Grice said. “I think it's great, because they stuck through all of Camden’s ups and downs.”
Mantua Township resident Pamela Cappello said she had Donkey’s for the first time about a month ago.
“It’s amazing, I don’t want another cheesesteak anymore,” Capello said. She was brought to Donkey’s by her friend, Karen Vick, who said she goes early in the morning on the first Saturday of every month.
“It's a fun atmosphere,” said Vick. “It’s like a family, Rob’s great. They make you feel at home, like your having breakfast with your friends.”
Dwight McGuire, from Lindenwold, goes every Friday after work with some friends.
“The food is great, and you get your money’s worth,” said McGuire.
The establishment, while always popular among locals, really hit the national scene when it was featured on the late chef, writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show “Parts Unknown,” where he proclaimed, “The best cheesesteak in the area might well come from New Jersey.”
Donkey’s Place has also been featured on the ABC television show “The Goldberg’s,” and earlier this summer Democratic Assemblyman Paul Moriarty introduced a resolution that would establish it as a stop along the “Anthony Bourdain Food Trail.” Introduced in June shortly after Bourdain committed suicide, the resolution would require the state’s Travel and Tourism Division to establish a trail of the 10 restaurants in New Jersey Bourdain visited in the 2015 episode of “Parts Unknown.”