BROCKTON — From dishwasher at the Sheraton to executive chef at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, Cape Verdean immigrant Justino “JJ” Fernandes climbed the culinary ladder.
Now, he is bringing the gourmet flair of luxury hotels to JJ’s Caffe, a small breakfast-and-lunch restaurant at 610 North Main St., in Brockton.
You may be driving past some of the best food in the area without realizing it.
Justino opened JJ’s Caffe a year and a half ago. Tucked behind an unassuming exterior, the inside is inviting. Patrons sit at wooden tables with garden-green mugs and neatly-folded cloth napkins. The cream walls are speckled with framed photos of Brockton from decades past. A winding counter outlines the grill area, where diners relaxing on blue barstools chat with the culinary team.
It is 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, but almost everyone is eating breakfast at the family-operated restaurant.
Breakfast is even more popular than lunch, says general manager Nelson Fernandes, 31, Justino’s son.
The breakfast menu has staples such as French toast, pancakes and eggs Benedict, but also twists on the classic dishes.
The crème brûlée French toast happened by chance, says Nelson.
When the crème brûlée dessert wasn’t selling because diners were already full from their entrees, Justino put the crème brûlée on French toast, blanketing the toast with a rich custard, then caramelizing a layer of sugar with a torch to create a thin shell of sweet crunch.
The latest French toast iteration at JJ’s Caffe is seasonal – spiced pumpkin bread studded with cranberries and finished with a scoop of homemade cinnamon-nutmeg whipped cream.
Also popular is the banana bread French toast drizzled with creamy caramel sauce and dusted with powdered sugar.
For savory breakfast options, try the one of the creative eggs Benedict options. The perfectly-cooked egg yolks wobble as the waiter sets the plate down.
The “Hangover Benedict” stars three poached eggs and sirloin steak on a ciabatta roll, with sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers and a red wine demi-glace.
For a fancier twist, the “Duchess Benedict” has two poached eggs with whole grain mustard cream, atop a savory bed of crab, lobster, peppers and onions on an English muffin.
Popular lunch options include the “Champion Burger,” which has eight ounces of Angus beef piled with caramelized onions, bacon, cheddar and spicy chipotle mayo on a brioche bun.
For a healthy route, try the “Vinda wrap,” named after Justino’s wife. The wrap packs marinated grilled chicken, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, feta and chipotle mayo. Opt for a side of sweet potato fries: crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and a perfect complement to the chipotle mayo.
It is a menu one would expect from a trendy upscale eatery in Boston, not a family-operated cafe in Brockton – and that’s the goal.
“My entire professional career was in Boston, my father’s entire professional career was in Boston,” says Nelson.
They want to bring the gourmet Boston food scene to their home in Brockton.
Justino, 58, came to Brockton from Cape Verde and raised his family here. Nelson began as a bar-back at the Park Plaza Hotel with his father, but shifted his hospitality career to focus on front-of-the-house duties including front desk, sales and concierge service.
“I have experience with the front-of-the-house, he has experience with the back-of-the-house,” says Nelson.
The balance in this father-son partnership seems to be successful. For example, on Sunday, JJ’s Caffe averages about 230 to 240 guests, Nelson says – a remarkable turnout for a restaurant with only 33 seats.
The goal is to make sure every one of those guests is personally visited by Justino or Nelson.
“Just like family,” says Justino.
“The whole idea of JJ’s hospitality is that we want to run it like a five-star hotel,” says Nelson. “We want to be known for our service.”
And somehow it works. JJ’S Caffe bridges the gap between luxury hotel hospitality and an “everyone knows your name” community-gathering atmosphere while providing creative food.
Hopefully this addition to Brockton’s food scene inspires more restaurants like it.
Nicole Fleming, staff writer for the Enterprise, also writes “The Girl Who Ate Boston” food blog at www.TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com.