PepperJax Grill is new to Lincoln, but its owner, Gary Rohwer, is not.
Rohwer operated the Chartroose Caboose in downtown Lincoln, opening it in 1981 and running it until 1989.
The Caboose was known for its Philly steak sandwiches, which were popular among college kids and business folks.
By 1985, Rohwer had franchises in five states.
In 1988, he developed Steak-EZE, a method of slicing and portioning Philly steak meat. A year later, he sold his restaurants to devote more time to processing and marketing Steak-EZE to North American restaurants. He acquired the patent for it in 1992.
"I guess you could say that was my financial home run," he said.
In 1998, he sold his company and retired. But his story didn't end there.
Impressed by the fast casual concept of such restaurants as Chipotle, Rohwer returned to the restaurant business in 2002 in Omaha with PepperJax Grill, another Philly cheese steak restaurant, where staff members cook and build sandwiches, wraps and more in assembly-line fashion in front of the diners.
Today, there are seven PepperJax restaurants in Omaha and two in Kansas. Rohwer, who founded the Philly steak supplier Glenn Valley Foods in 2009, plans to open seven more PepperJax stores next year, including one in downtown Lincoln and expanding into Iowa and Missouri.
There's no doubt Rohwer knows a thing or two about Philly steak and chicken sandwiches. PepperJax Phillys are made to order, with meat seasoned and chopped, grilled with mushrooms, onions, peppers and jalapenos and either layered into a 10-inch hoagie, rolled into a 13-inch flour tortilla or served atop seasoned rice or salad greens.
I took my best friend Paul, a Philly connoisseur, during a weekday lunch. He ordered the steak Philly, and I had the chicken one.
We liked that there were fresh veggies to go with the sautéed ones. We also were impressed with the selection of sauces, which are available next to the soda fountain. They included a classic steak sauce, a herb-roasted Au Jus and even a spicy Creole sauce.
The sandwiches are hefty and reasonably priced -- $5.99 for steak and $5.89 for chicken. Extra ingredients and sauces do not cost extra. Sides, however, do. They are $1 to $2 each, with steak fries priced at $1.89.
I may ask for less seasoning on my next visit. We both thought our sandwiches were a tad salty, which we attributed to the seasoning and sauce selections. Some people like it that way; others do not. So beware. Grade: B+
Nothing is pre-made. Sandwiches, wraps, bowls and salads are prepared in front of the customers. Since there is no table service, this means a lot of standing and waiting in lines.
Paul and I arrived at 11:30 a.m. and moved through a short line fairly quickly. But by noon, the line ran along one wall and into the dining room. Patrons were waiting 10 to 15 minutes before reaching the grill. The wait can be frustrating.
Fortunately, the store has to-go menus at the entrance, which allow you to figure out what you want to order while you are waiting. Once at the grill, it takes another minute or two while sandwiches, wraps, etc., are prepared. You pick up your order at the cash register. Grade: C
PepperJax filled its walls with historic photos depicting Lincoln's past. Paul and I stared at one from 1933 of the University of Nebraska campus while we waited in line. The stadium has changed dramatically since then. Anyway, the photos are a nice touch.
PepperJax has a variety of seating for singles and/or small and large groups. I would recommend a table away from the door because a breeze blows in anytime the door opens, which is often during the lunch and dinner hours. Grade: B
For a restaurant specializing in steak and chicken sandwiches, PepperJax makes an effort for vegetarians. The restaurant has a veggie Philly, rice bowl, wrap and salad on its menu.
Veggies include peppers, onions, mushrooms, jalapenos, pinto and black beans, black olives, shredded lettuce and tomatoes. Items are about $1 cheaper than those with meat.
Staff members will scrape the grill before sauteeing veggies or use a separate pan to avoid contact with any meats.
A few more veggie choices -- avocado, other pepper varieties, even broccoli -- could make this more appealing to vegetarians. Grade: B-