How has this escaped our notice through the decades of living in The Garden State? Here in Camden is one of the great cheesesteaks to be found anywhere, in a soulfully satisfying setting to boot. Obviously, the Camden location is the major reason for Donkey’s Place’s relative obscurity along the Philly cheesesteak circuit. Camden has recently had the distinction of having the highest violent crime rate in the country; over 40% of its residents live below the poverty line, the highest rate in the nation; since 1980 three of its mayors have been jailed for corruption. Camden is hurting.
If it seems a little perverse to be encouraging a food-tourism trek to an area in such dire straits, well, we understand the point. But it’s also true that if Camden is to have any hope of recovery, the good local businesses will have to succeed. You, of course, will make your own call.
The name: why Donkey’s? Former Olympic boxer Leon Lucas purchased the tavern in 1947. He was nicknamed Donkey because it is said his punch had the force of a mule’s kick (so why wasn’t his nickname mule?). Donkey’s has remained in the Lucas family ever since.
Cheesesteaks on round rolls are not unheard of, but they are fairly rare, and go against decades of long-roll tradition. Nonetheless, we would place Donkey’s steak right up there with the beauties at Steve’s Prince of Steaks. What they have in common is the use of sliced, not chopped, steak, a style we prefer.
The kaiser rolls are smaller than normal cheesesteak rolls, but they surround a standard allotment of beef, resulting in a meatier experience. But what really distinguishes a Donkey’s steak is the tidal wave of soft, well-cooked onions. They offer an extra-onions option but you’d have to be an onion maniac to request that because a regular steak has more onions than we’ve seen on any other cheesesteak. And they’re good!
Arrayed on the tables and bar are jars of hot red relish, and we strongly recommend you spoon on some of the incendiary condiment. Between the hot sauce and drippy onions and juicy beef, this is one soulful sandwich, not for prissy eaters. On the side, order some fries, notable for the sprinkle of something like Old Bay crab boil seasoning they receive.
Donkey’s Place has the well-worn and cluttered look of the very old tavern it is. There’s an eclectic assortment of “stuff” scattered about the place including an old jukebox that looks like it hasn’t been plugged in for decades, and some showcases displaying Donkey’s boxing gloves. It’s a very welcoming and comfortable bar; there is nothing threatening or challenging about a visit, once inside, and even the neighborhood seems OK to us, at least during daylight hours, the only time Donkey’s Place is open for business. They also have their own small parking lot. There’s a second Donkey’s Place in suburban Medford, where the owners now live. We suppose you can visit the suburban Donkey’s if you must but, really, it doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun as this old bar.