When you're a first-time restaurant owner, it doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor. And for Chaka Chaka's Charlie Blonkenfeld, a banana will do nicely.
"I was experimenting with my jerk chicken sandwich, and my roommate wanted to put cheese on it," Blonkenfeld says. "I told him, 'Screw that. Why don't I just use this banana?' And so I did. It happened by accident."
The fried banana slice is the unexpected treat in Blonkenfeld's crazy-good (and not crazy-hot) jerk chicken sandwich, its sweetness complementing the hoagie's savory flavors. Huge and napkin-necessary, it's sliced in two and jam-packed with chunks of chicken, shredded cabbage, scallions, and fresh basil piled high in a poppy seed bun. The price? A mere six bucks.
"Yeah, I might be fuckin' up on that," he says. "I'm not great with numbers."
Lucky for us. In fact, all six breakfast and lunch items at Chaka Chaka (Blonkenfeld likes to keep it simple) are sizable deals of deliciousness, including the spicy Schreiner's chorico and egg sandwich and Hebrew National kosher dog, both featuring peppers, onions, queso fresco, and jalapeño mayonnaise. Even the garlic fries, two bucks for a bag, are tough to turn away.
Blonkenfeld grew up in Phoenix, getting into the food industry when he was 19. After spending almost 15 years in the catering business ("I've spent more holidays with the same family in Paradise Valley than I have my own, and they still don't know my name"), it was time to start Chaka Chaka.
Think the joint's name is some sort of metaphysical mumbo jumbo? Think again.
"It's dirty Spanish slang," Blonkenfeld says. "You know, like, Mary and Fred were doing the chaka chaka last night. Hey, [the restaurant's] next to an adult book store."
Operating in a former Mexican fast food joint, Blonkenfeld says he's considering putting a burrito on the menu, given the amount of people who walk in — then walk out — when he has no Mexican for them.
Catch Blonkenfeld in one of his baking moods, and you'll find freshly baked goodness waiting at the counter. For the funny stuff, you can catch his act. He's been doing stand-up since March at the Icehouse Tavern, his latest bit involving untangling extension cords while audience members read selections from the dictionary.
"I'm terrible," he laughs. "My act is five minutes, but since I've opened this restaurant, I've got enough material for 20."
Funny guy, seriously good chow.