Under-the-radar cuisine hidden in a Sussex shopping center
So there I was, out in the wilderness (well, OK, Georgetown), dangerously close to actually feeling hungry. While I waited for the light at Market Street and Route 113, I scanned the horizon (well, OK, the nearby shopping center), and suddenly there it was: J&J Bagels. Ahhh, a plump bagel and a big iced tea. Perfect.
Please don’t turn the page. It gets better.
What started out as a snack - and certainly nothing worthy of a newspaper column - ended up being a two-hour conversation with the owner, Juan Moreno. Turns out that this friendly guy presides over what might be the only “speakeasy” bagel joint on the planet.
First things first: Juan was born in New Jersey, but his family moved to Bogotá, Colombia when he was 6. He returned to the U.S. 11 years later, completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology while working at a bagel shop in Montclair, N.J. Decisively on track to earn his master’s degree, he planned a career as a professional counselor or psychotherapist.
In addition to all things psychological, Juan also loved to cook, and jumped at the chance to buy his own place. Newly married to his wife, Janna, on his way to a master’s degree, and soon to be owner of his own bakery, Juan was on top of the world. But nature had other ideas.
Just before he was to settle on the purchase, he was diagnosed with MDS, a serious blood condition also known as preleukemia. He spent four months in the hospital. His education was on hold and the bakery deal fell through.
The treatment culminated in a bone marrow transplant and he’s been in full remission for over a year.
A longtime friend who owned a bagel and sandwich shop in Georgetown invited Juan and Janna to the beach for some rest and relaxation. So they packed up the umbrella and flip-flops and trekked southward for a little quiet time. Oops…once again, nature saw things differently.
On the day they arrived, his friend’s wife was in a serious car accident at the exact spot where I was sitting in the first paragraph of this article. The owner needed time to care for her, so he asked Juan to run the shop. One thing led to another, and last December he bought the place.
I know I left you hanging back there with that “speakeasy” remark, but good things come to those who wait. Speakeasy dining is an emerging trend where, reminiscent of the clandestine Prohibition bars, an eatery gains a following entirely by word of mouth. No name, no advertising - nothing but good food worth whispering about.
Outside, the sign may say “Bagels,” but inside ,Juan Moreno is secretly whompin’ up mouth-watering entrees. He offers only one special daily, so by mid-morning the phone starts to ring.
“What’s on for lunch?” Juan keeps track of the calls and preps a little more just in case.
One day it will be poached tilapia filets in a white wine sauce with tiny potatoes roasted in olive oil. On another, it’s a crispy chicken quarter nestled in a colorful nest of Spanish rice and beans. How about a steaming pot of Lomo Saltado, a savory Peruvian stew topped with homemade French fries?
Costa Rican customers love the Gallo Pinto, a pungent blend of fried rice and beans. He celebrates his Colombian culture with Arroz con Pollo, a blend of vegetables, herbs, rice, chicken and a secret ingredient I promised not to reveal. (OK, capers. But you didn’t hear it from me.) Here’s the kicker: Not one of these dishes is a penny over $6.75!
Word of Juan’s under-the-radar cuisine continues to spread, but he still dreams of completing his master’s degree and becoming a mental health professional. Bilingual psychotherapists are few and far between, and he knows he could be an asset to the Latino community.
Juan stressed to me how vital his wife’s support and encouragement have been. “She has fulfilled all my dreams, and I couldn’t have done any of it without her.”
After all that he and Janna have been through, there’s probably nothing the two of them couldn’t accomplish together.