“You have to come to Perry’s to get a Perry’s sandwich!”
So sayeth Perry Bennett, the energetic and affable 50-year-old owner, operator, chef and mastermind behind Perry’s Joint, a neighborhood fixture on Lincoln Avenue since 2004. That’s sixteen years. How is it that a manically roving local lunch hound like me had missed it all these years? It’s true that I rarely find my way up Pasadena’s north Lincoln spur and the café itself is located in a handsome but unassuming complex of shops on the west side of the street that tends to blur on a drive-by.
I owe my “discovery” of Perry’s Joint solely to Kat Hong’s recently posted list of African American-owned restaurants on theinfatuation.com, which was expanded by Jenn Harris and published in the LA Times Food Section on June 7.
On my first visit, hoping to avoid the lunch rush, I arrive around 3 p.m. and join a lengthening line of folks out the front door. Apparently, it’s still lunch and still a rush at Perry’s. Perusing the menu of sandwiches and hot dogs posted over the front counter, I reflexively order a “Chicago Dog” priced at $5. I can’t help it. I’m from Chicago. To us, a “Chicago Dog” is the only dog. To us, there is only one way to serve a hot dog and you can only get one in Chicago.
Nonetheless, Perry’s has “New York” and “Detroit” versions, various chili-dog takes and an “American” that features both mustard and — ahem — ketchup. Regardless, for me, if Perry’s can pass the “Chicago Dog” test, I’m all in.
The tomatoes, onion and pickle are fresh, the dog has snap and the dusting of celery salt seals the deal for relative authenticity. I’m coming back!
The next day, I’m in line again with a larger order to actually try the sandwiches. While I’m waiting, I quiz a couple of my fellow patrons. Like me, Carolyn B. is here for the first time. How did she get here?
“I have a dear friend who used to be with the Police Department. I asked him about Perry’s Joint, and he said, ‘It’s excellent!’” (Whatever one’s opinion may be of the police these days, in my experience they do know where to go for a sandwich.)
Another customer, Karen M., has been a regular for 10 years, since high school. Just up the block from John Muir High School, the students have always been a reliable customer base at Perry’s Joint and they figure prominently in Perry’s story, as we will soon discover.
The menu offers both “Perry’s Straight Ahead Sandwiches” as well as “Perry’s Fusion Sandwiches.” The “Straight Ahead” options are priced at $8.25 or $5.50 for half. The more exotic “Fusion” varieties are $9 and $9.75 and tend to feature various combinations of roast beef, pastrami and turkey. By the way, pre-lockdown Perry’s Joint also featured live jazz music and the sandwich names are inspired by jazz artists and culture. I order a “Veggie Combo” from the first list and a “Tuna Simone” and “The Guru” from the “Fusion” list. “The Guru” features hot pastrami and turkey with lettuce, tomato, and pepperoncini. According to Perry it’s a popular favorite but here’s an off-menu pro-tip: ask for the “Chef’s Special.” Sources tell me it’s a secret combination of “The Hip Bird” and the “Chicken Mingus” and is Chef Perry’s personal favorite. All of the sandwiches are fresh, made to order and generously portioned.
Despite its lengthy tenure on Lincoln, Perry’s Joint originated in San Francisco in 1993, when Bennett was all of 23 years old. Inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of his father, Thomas Bennett, 83, who still owns and operates Miyako’s Ice Cream in the Fillmore District, Perry Bennett was out to set an example. The crack epidemic had taken hold in the city and among some of his friends. “There wasn’t a lot of light… I needed people to have a different experience in coming to a black business. Also, I wanted the young black people to see — I needed them to see — something different on a couple different levels. Community first.”
The move to Pasadena came in the wake of San Francisco’s tide of gentrification and rising rents. Bennett’s wife Melanie, 48, had a best friend who lived in Altadena and the area appealed to the young couple. With their two children Perry Morrel and Hannah (now 18 and 16, respectively) they settled in Pasadena just three blocks from the café’s present location.
The late real estate developer and community activist Jaylene Moseley was instrumental in helping Bennett establish the new restaurant locally. She had just built the business complex, where Perry’s Joint resides on Lincoln, with the direct intention of community redevelopment in the neighborhood north of John Muir High School. As Bennett explains, “She’s a big reason why I’m talking to you now. Without her this wouldn’t be possible… I knew the community needed something like this. I felt it was right. Jaylene made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. By the grace of God and Jaylene. She believed in me.” So Bennett pays it forward.
In 2010, he established a college scholarship fund for students at John Muir High School, where he dedicates a single day’s gross revenue from Perry’s Joint to a particular deserving student. It began when Perry ran into a student he knew buying large amounts of candy at Smart & Final. The student — aptly named Destiny — explained that he had just been accepted to UC Berkeley but needed to raise money for his tuition by selling candy at the high school.
“I said, ‘I like your hustle. Come see me on Monday. I’m going to raise money for you. When I gave him a check, [I said] ‘This isn’t for free. When you get in a position, I need you to come back and find a kid to support too.’ He said, ‘Mr. Bennett, I will not let you down!’”
Despite this semester’s interruption by the pandemic lockdown, Bennett has his student picked (she doesn’t know yet) and he will likely conduct the one-day fundraiser as usual on the first Saturday in August. Mark your calendars folks!
“It’s my part, [with] everything that goes on in our society being black, some want to protest or change policy. My part is to be an example and have an impact on these kids. That’s my contribution. That’s my part. It’s ongoing.”
Do you’ need a better reason to go out and get a great sandwich?
Make it a Chef’s Special (from a very special chef). Like Bennett says, “Community first.” –
Perry’s Joint Cafe
2051 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena