When the James Beard Foundation named Sawyer a semifinalist for “Best New Restaurant” in the United States in February, the Ballard restaurant became one of Seattle’s hottest dining spots. Chef Mitch Mayers’ eclectic bistro blends comfort food with fine-dining technique — most notably with its playful spin on the Pacific Northwest potato staple: the jojo.
Three miles south, in Interbay, addo:206 chef Eric Rivera — who cut his teeth at Chicago’s Alinea under famed chef Grant Achatz — also features a jojo on his new bar menu.
They’re not alone. This fast-food staple is now on dinner menus at restaurants all over Seattle. Yet, the jojo has humble origins. It lives between the fried chicken and corn dogs in the hot deli section of your local grocers. To an untrained eye, it looks like a potato wedge. But this fried snack, also often found under heat lamps in gas stations, is a beloved local delicacy — not to be confused with other fries. Its unique battered coating is similar to the breading on fried chicken, and typically features paprika, onion powder and garlic powder. The jojo has the creamy interior texture of a baked potato with a crisp (or not-so-crisp, depending on how long it’s sat under that heat lamp!) French fry-like exterior. It’s also sturdier than a fry, which makes it suited for lots of toppings or bolder flavors.
Local chefs, inspired by their childhoods spent eating grocery-store jojos as snacks, are crafting their own tastes of nostalgia with modernized jojos on their menus.
“A corn dog and jojos from QFC was always my ‘get better’ meal, when I was sick growing up,” says Mayers, a native Washingtonian.
Wanting to craft a more creative version that “reminded me of warm feelings,” Mayers reinvented the jojo for Sawyer’s menu. In its first iteration, it was served with homemade buttermilk ranch, sweet pickles and scallions. Today you can find it on the menu served patatas bravas style, with corn, cotija cheese and a poached egg. Mayers’ jojos aren’t pressure fried like the traditional version, but his secret is a hot vinegar brine before the wedges hit the fryer.
Who invented the jojo?
But what’s a “traditional” jojo anyway? How did this seasoned potato wedge become so omnipresent throughout the Pacific Northwest?
While the term “jojo” may be foreign to an East Coast or Southern transplant, Pacific Northwesterners and Midwesterners all claim the jojo as their local creation. As a result, the history of these spuds is a little muddled. Jojos, probably to the surprise of many PNW locals — including this one — are found all over the U.S.
In the Bay Area, they might be referred to as “mojos,” a trademarked name belonging to the local chain Shakey’s Pizza. In other parts of the country they are called “tater babies” or “tater boys.” They even appear as far as Germany where they’re known as Kartoffelspalten. But whatever you call these wedged, battered, then fried spuds, their history all begins with the invention of the pressure fryer.
The pressure fryer, which is less dangerous than it sounds, combined a deep fryer with a pressure cooker. This frying technique is known as “broasting,” coined by L.A.M. Phelan, founder of the Broaster Company and the inventor of the pressure fryer. His commercial pressure fryer came about around the same time that Colonel Harland Sanders began to franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1950s. The appeal, especially to burgeoning fast-food chains, was that it cooked chicken at higher temperatures and allowed the meat to retain its moisture, so restaurants could serve juicier fried chicken, faster. In 1960, a company called Flavor-Crisp trademarked its own commercial version of a deep fat pressure fryer. It sold the fryers and later its chicken batters and marinades across the U.S., and where there was Flavor-Crisp chicken, jojos were almost always found on the menu.
“There are two stories,” says Flavor-Crisp company President Pat Lazure, when asked if Flavor-Crisp invented the jojo. According to Lazure, Ron Echtenkamp, a Flavor-Crisp executive, visited Chicago for a National Restaurant Association expo in the early 1960s to promote its pressure fryers. At the expo, Flavor-Crisp salesmen fried chicken and fish as a demo for prospective buyers to sample.
Right next door was an Idaho potato salesman who threw wedges of potato into the fryer to “clean the grease” between batches. These potato wedges were then fished out and discarded. By accident some of the potatoes ended up on the display table and “people were like piranhas, they snapped them up,” Lazure said.
“When customers asked Ron and his fellow salesmen what they were called, they made up the name on the spot, saying they were jojos,” said Lazure, in a recent phone interview from Omaha, Nebraska.
Echtenkamp even told the Willamette Week that his company once had a trademark on jojos.
End of story, right? An Omaha-based fryer company invented the jojo.
Not quite, which is why Lazure says there are two stories.
Paul Nicewonger of Nicewonger Co., a restaurant-supply company in Vancouver, Washington, tells a very similar story to Lazure’s that involves his father, the former owner of the company, at a food expo. While he is unsure where exactly the expo was, Nicewonger remembers hearing the same story of potato wedges going into the fryer to refresh the oil. “They somehow got thrown on a tray, and some salesman said it was a jojo,” says Nicewonger.
Nicewonger says he never had the chance to confirm the story with his father, who died a few years ago. But this was the legend he had always heard. Regardless of who invented it, Nicewonger said, “We got the name (jojos) in the marketplace in (the Pacific Northwest).”
Nicewonger Co. distributed and promoted Flavor-Crisp fryers across the Pacific Northwest at the time, explaining how the jojo spread across this region. The company later developed its own pressure fryers and its own breading called Crispy Light. While the company is no longer in the food-equipment business, it still sells its breading today.
The jojo today
Regardless of who invented them, jojos have stuck around. Today, they typically aren’t broasted or pressure fried to order, they are shipped frozen from manufacturers including McCain Foods, the world’s largest frozen-potato manufacturer, and reheated in ovens or fryers. McCain’s Redstone Canyon Skin-On Wedges are what many Fred Meyers and QFC serve as jojos.
“Jojos are traditionally a potato cut into eight segments, breaded like chicken, and cooked in a pressure fryer,” says Nicewonger, who maintains that anything else just isn’t a real jojo. He also insists a true jojo is served with ranch.
But the beauty of the jojo is in its versatility. Aside from Mayers at Sawyer, many other local chefs have gussied up the jojo for their menus too.
Seth Richardson, of Seattle’s Odin Star food truck, grew up in a small town on the Oregon Coast, and much like Mayers, jojos remind him of trips to the local grocery store.
“That was one of my favorite treats, jojos and chicken strips with ranch,” Richardson recalls.
His version of the treat begins by roasting russet potatoes (“take it a little over a baked potato”) that are then cooled, cut, frozen and thawed before hitting the fryer. The freezing helps break down the cell walls of the potato so it gets crispier. No breading. No extra seasoning. Just salt, pepper, a few herbs, and then it is served with a black garlic ranch. Richardson also does a loaded ‘jo, with Parmesan, herbs, pickled peppers and green mayo.
Rivera, of addo:206, a restaurant within Batch 206 Distillery, grew up eating grocery-store jojos after baseball practices in Olympia. Rivera liked the idea of adding a jojo to his menu because it’s sturdier than a fry. His jojos are seasoned with fennel pollen, fennel salt and mustard. No breading and no pressure frying aside, addo jojos still maintain that perfect mashed-potato texture in the middle with a crisp exterior.
“Everyone loves a good magic trick,” says Rivera when you ask him how they are made. And his jojos are just that, a lot of high-end restaurant techniques disguised in a familiar potato wedge like magic.
If you are looking for something closer to an old-school jojo, Marco Polo Bar & Grill in Georgetown has been serving broasted chicken and jojos since the 1950s. Alternatively, if you are willing to travel to Portland, the Reel M Inn still has an original Flavor-Crisp pressure fryer (the company stopped making them over 15 years ago) and the kitchen churns out hot broasted chicken and jojos daily.
Or skip the lines, the modern interpretations and the higher prices, and stick with the good ol’ $1.75-per-pound deli jojos.
Broasted or not, they still hit the spot.