JO-EL’S: LOVE, PEACE & BURGER GREASE
article by VANELIS RIVERA
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Jo-Els in Monroe officially opened its doors on July 12th of this year. And while their customer-base has been eagerly waiting to devour their favorite menu items, this re-opening also ushers in a few brand new items the sister-friend team can’t wait to serve their clientele.
Robyn Walker and Kelli Angell get wrongfully identified as sisters all the time, especially when they are working alongside each other at their restaurant, Jo-Els. Though the two women share subtle resemblances–warm glinting eyes, distinguished cheek bones, and wide-set smiles–their synchronicitous dynamic has been years in the making. Before they purchased the restaurant from the original owner, the two worked as servers there and shared a common passion for riding motorcycles. Naturally, they hit it off, becoming sister-friends who would begin dreaming of owning a restaurant together. In 2015, the opportunity arose and now their recent move to a new location is offering a space and menu that runs on love, peace, and burger grease.
The original owner of Jo-Els named the cafe after her father, but by 2015 she was ready to retire and Kelli decided it was an opportunity she could not pass up. During a Black Friday shopping run, Kelli revealed her plans to Robyn, asking her to stick with her. Robyn agreed, at that point only acting as a supporting hand. Unfortunately, by 2019 Kelli had to close shop, but never gave up on wanting to resuscitate the endeavor as soon as possible. “We were separated every day,” says Robyn, who decided to move down the street from her bestie in order to still be together on a daily basis, which included having joint dinners every night.
For a while, the pair looked at various locations in West Monroe, the original stomping ground of the original Jo-Els. Surprisingly, their match was across the river among the nostalgically attractive homes of the Garden District. Jo-Els in Monroe officially opened its doors on July 12th of this year. And while their customer-base has been eagerly waiting to devour their favorite menu items, this re-opening also ushers in a few brand new items the sister-friend team can’t wait to serve their clientele.
“Debbie did plate lunches,” says Kelli, describing the popular item from the original menu. But for the most part, they began expanding their selections. A crowd favorite is their delightfully titled poboy, the “11 Napkin Roast Beef Poboy.” The title as well as the menu warns that it’s a “yummy mess.” The debris style roast beef is roasted for 12 hours, then placed on toasted Gambino French bread, topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, then served with a side of gravy and your choice of chips, fries, or tots. “It’s a mess,” says Kelli with a smile, adding, “it just falls apart…you just gotta eat it with a fork and 11 napkins.” Robyn nods in agreement, then interjects, “A customer named it.”
Another frequenter favorite that also happens to be Robyn’s go-to is the “Chicken Bacon Ranch” flatbread. This simple combination of chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, and ranch is elevated by the flattened dough it rests between. “No one else has the flatbreads that we have. That’s the very thing that we try to impress. We use them different than anybody would use them,” says Robyn. Currently, the eatery offers four flatbreads, and the combination gunning for tying with first place is the “Steak and Cheddar” (shredded ribeye steak, onions, bell pepper, cheddar cheese and BBQ ranch). Robyn comments, “They’re trying to fight over who’s the number one because we have sold so many steak contenders.”
For the most part, Kelli is the head cook of Jo-Els, but she was not always the one behind the kitchen counter. Originally, she was a server, but this changed on a packed lunch day. With customer patience thinning, she became so frustrated with the speed of the kitchen line, that she stepped into the kitchen to help the cook dress burgers. Noting her determination, the owner turned to her and said, “If you think you can do it faster than him, why don’t you do it?” She took the challenge, for the first time ever stepping in front of a grill and expediting American and Southern favorites. “I’ve hired some great people over the years that have taught me as much as I’ve taught them,” Kelli says. “I don’t even do the cooking at home,” she laughs, giving that credit to her husband. Robyn claims more at-home cooking savvy, explaining that she assists Kelli when she can, but back in the day it was not as efficient to do so, as the original Jo-El’s kitchen was a very small work space. “So having two butts back there didn’t really work,” humors Robyn. But the two got accustomed to switching from front of house to cooking, Robyn admitting she learned the menu by watching Kelli in the kitchen. “You wanna do it, you’ll figure it out,” asserts Robyn.
One menu item Kelli is most particular about is probably what the cafe is most known for–the burgers! “I hand-pat every single burger every single day,” says Kelli, informing that the seemingly simple task is actually quite complex. Even the temperature of your hands can change the texture of an uncooked patty. “I don’t allow anybody but Robyn to touch them,” she says. Robyn chiming in, “I can touch them now. Took a lot of years, but I got there.” The eight burgers on the menu are sure to satisfy a variety of palates, though Kelli is partial to “The Complete Meltdown,” as she loves patty melts and almost had a meltdown trying to name the burger with melted pepper jack cheese, sautéed onion, and mayo on Texas toast. On the larger side, their “The Big Chief” (which can also be ordered with one patty) is sure to “cause the need for a nap.” It boasts two patties, opened faced on a jalapeño cheddar bun, smothered in gravy, sautéed onions, and shredded cheese.
Recently, the burger besties brought back Burger of the Week, which features some phenomenally constructed creations that any burger maniac wouldn’t want to miss. The “OG” burger on their menu is “The Whistle Stop,” which consists of a ⅓ lb patty on a jalapeño cheddar bun, topped with pepper jack cheese, thousand island dressing, lettuce, and a fried green tomato. If you love a little heat, you’d be crazy not to give Robyn’s favorite, “The El Loco,’’ a try. It’s a ⅓ lb patty placed on a jalapeño cheddar bun, topped with shredded queso cheese, jalapeño ranch, crunchy tortilla strips, and a jalapeño popper! The ideas for burger week come from customer requests as much as Kelli’s imagination. She starts by considering a favorite ingredient, which often ends up being a sauce, and then begins to work around that ingredient. The crazier and weirder, the better. Of late, Kelli has been partial to “The Brewski Pub,” made with a beer cheese that Robyn has to stir fervently to get right, it sits on a pretzel bun and is delightfully tangy. In spite of the complexity of these burgers, Robyn admits that coming up with the names is the hardest part.
Now that they have a larger location with a bar area, they have added a brunch menu now available on Saturdays and Sundays. It will feature “Chicken and Waffles’’ and creamy “Shrimp ‘n Cheesy Gouda Grits.” While Kelli takes care of the grits, Robyn presides over the étouffée sauce. The best part–they get to work side-by-side now that they have a stove big enough for multiple pots and pans (and butts). Of course, brunch wouldn’t be complete without bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys. Eventually, the pair hope to bring back an item they used to only serve once a year–homemade cinnamon rolls. “We make some of the best cinnamon rolls,” says Kelli.
During October 2020, the sister-friends took over a friend’s bakery in order to make as many cinnamon rolls as they could in order to answer a significant call–to feed the hungry during Thanksgiving. On the Jo-Els Facebook page they announce their free meals, making sure to convey that no requisite is needed: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve fallen on hard times or ran short of money, you don’t have transportation, you are disabled, elderly or just alone. We want you to have Thanksgiving!” Since 2015, they have made sure to offer free meals during this time out of their own pocket and from the money raised by the sticky buns sold during the month of October. They hope to keep this kind-hearted tradition going with the help of the community. Another endeavor they are planning to include in their new location is a pay-it-forward program where customers will be able to pay for a meal for anyone who comes in that cannot afford it or is in dire need.
“We love the community and the community loves us,” informs Robyn, speaking of their relationship with customers and employees. “Most of them really are our family, basically,” she says, referring to some of their children who run the registrar and bus tables. She adds, “And if they’re not, if we pick them up along the way, they become family pretty quick.”
Jo-Els is located 903 North 4th Street, Monroe, LA 71201 and is open Tuesday through Wednesday between 11 AM to 9 PM and Sunday between 11 AM to 3 PM. Follow them on Facebook to learn about more exciting food items and events soon to come.