TAMPA — AJ's Press is a tiny freestanding shack around the corner from the side entrance of Steinbrenner Field, its handful of tables made of repurposed doors and the counter constructed of packing pallet slats. It also happens to be the No. 4 highest-ranked restaurant on Yelp.
How does this happen? Rhapsodic over-the-moon five-star reviews get avid Yelpers curious enough to hop in the car. When those folks' expectations are met or exceeded, you get more five-star reviews. And so on. AJ's Press' Yelp listing has 201 photos, many of them blurrily enthusiastic closeups of pressed Cubans and beer-braised brisket sandwiches, and 207 reviews. Nearly all of them five stars.
I toyed with writing this review in the style of Yelp's most annoying reviewers. There's the utterly unhelpful and vague language: "The jalapeno bacon hush puppies are on point." The unreasonable expectations: "Were there chopsticks with which to eat my Cuban? No, there were not." The over-sharer: "On the crunchy chicken I asked for no Jack cheese, because you don't want to know what happens when I eat cheese." The fancy-pantser: "The unctuous pork redolent of mojo was authentic, as I know from my many years of travel in Cuba." And then the rage-filled posters who take umbrage at everything: "Owners Greg and Jill Lynn are just too friendly. It's creepy with all the smiling."
But that wouldn't be fair to Greg and Jill Lynn. AJ's opened in November 2015, although the owners are not restaurant rookies. Greg was with Outback for years, helping to launch concepts like Fleming's and Cheeseburger in Paradise. A few years back he bought the California Tacos group (the original on Bearss Avenue, another in South Tampa and a third in St. Petersburg), but sold those and looked around for what to do next. Jill found a listing for a Detroit-style hotdog stand on Craigslist, a humble spot in a weird location, but they thought it might work.
Here's why. People in certain professions — mechanics, electricians, car dealers — tend to go out to lunch every day. They tend to like sandwiches. They tend to like hot, pressed sandwiches. Bingo. AJ's is near where a lot of lunch-eaters work, car dealerships and business parks, and they deliver.
Still, that's not enough to make a restaurant successful. Despite what the angry Yelper might say, AJ's charm stems in part from a surfeit of friendliness, from Heidi Stecki at the counter to Chris Nelson in the kitchen. And the other part is the quality of the sandwiches.
The bread is interesting: Greg fell in love with Mexican tortas during his time with California Tacos, but didn't think enough people knew what tortas were to build a whole restaurant concept around them. Made by a small bakery in Clearwater, there are little bolillo rolls and somewhat larger telera, both reading like squatty little French baguettes with a crisp crust and moist crumb. These are split open, filled, brushed with butter and pressed vigorously.
The best options are the Cuban ($7.49 regular, $8.99 large), AJ's version with smokehouse-style ham, smoldery Spanish chorizo, roasted pork, Jack cheese, mustard, mayo and pickle; and the crunchy fried chicken sandwich, which comes with a zingy chili sauce, tomato, arugula and melty Jack ($7.49, $8.99). (And no, I don't have any weird cheese issue.) Vegetarians have good options, the best of which is a sauteed mushroom jumble of shiitakes, portobellos and buttons paired up with smoky-hot poblano strips, chipotle, a drizzle of garlicky mojo, goat cheese, Jack and arugula ($7.49, $8.99).
Sandwiches come with house-fried lattice chips, quite solid. I meandered through much of the rest of the menu, from the German potato salad (no mayo, not as tangy or bacony as Ted Peters in St. Petersburg; $1.99) to the workhorse no-bean, ground beef chili with its cap of gooey cheddar strings and flurry of onion ($3 cup, $4 bowl). Another big section of the menu is devoted to "bowls," the AJ's version with a bed of flavorful black beans and a topping of arugula and fried tortilla strips — what you choose for the middle ranges from excellent beer-braised brisket shreds ($8.99) to equally flavorful mojo pork, the pork accessorized with Jack, dill pickle and a swirl of smoky mojo oil ($6.99). Essentially, these bowls mirror the sandwich lineup, sans bread.
The short menu features one item, boxed and bolded, mentioned three times. It's the jalapeno bacon hush puppies, four for $3.29 and six for $3.99, something of a house invention and served with a slightly spicy remoulade-style sauce. The orbs are golden and crisp, fluffy interiored, with just enough jalapeno kick and bacon smokiness, their cornmeal sweetness the real emphasis. For a restaurant that is largely breakfast and lunch takeout, these are the things you might snarf first once you get back in the car. They are, as a Yelper might say, on point.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.