Have you ever seen a purple cow? Ezell Barnes, chef and owner of Zoagies, a food truck that became a phenomenon from a Sunoco station in South Jersey, thinks about purple cows a lot. “There’s a billion cows — no one will talk about those cows,” he says, sitting in the driver’s seat of his Zoagies truck. “But if there’s a purple cow, you’re going to say, ‘Mom, there’s a purple cow over there!’”
To Barnes and the hundreds of customer who visit his bright red food truck every week for his idiosyncratic sandwiches in South Jersey, Zoagies is a purple cow. In fact, it’s more like a deep-fried purple cow: Every day, Barnes and his six employees wake up, convene at the trucks, and begin frying up everything in sight but the steering wheel. “When people kept asking, ‘Do you fry the whole thing?’ and I’d say no, it was a downer,” Barnes says about the signature sub sandwiches he’s been making for nearly 10 years in everywhere from his backyard to two different gas stations to the parking lot he’s in now at 693 South Broadway in Pennsville. He realized he’d been slightly misrepresenting what he sold: “Zoagies unbelievable fried hoagies” stopped short at the roll.
“I said, ‘I ain’t telling nobody ever again that I don’t fry the roll,’ so I took that roll, put it in the grease, pulled it out, and it was greasy as hell,” Barnes recalls. That made sense, he says — you put a roll in grease, it’s going to come out greasy. “Then I changed my chef hat to a science hat.” How exactly Barnes is able to deep-fry spongey, soft hoagie rolls without turning them into grease-logged messes is proprietary information, he says. But suffice it to say, it worked. “I sliced it, the steam came out, and there was no grease on the inside. I said, ‘This roll is gonna be gold!’”
Despite the name, a Zoagie is not exactly a hoagie. The menu reads more like a po’ boy spot or a beachside fish sandwich stand than a takeout counter selling oregano-sprinkled Italian hoagies with olive oil. There are two cheesesteak options on the menu, but by and large, Zoagies sells fish — shrimp, crab, even lobster. Or, as the menu says, zhrimp, zrab, and zobster.
Zoagies started in Barnes’s backyard in neighboring Salem, New Jersey; the name is a play on Barnes’s nickname. “My nickname is Zok,” Barnes says. “A brother that was supporting me from the beginning came to my yard and ordered a zaco. I said ‘Zuck it! Zello! Zow zou zoing? We’re going to put a ‘z’ on every zadjective and zuperlative zout there. That day, Zinglish was born.” Sandwiches like the Zochness Monster come with zhrimp, zrab, zish, and zobster, topped with lettuce, grape tomatoes, and a “special house zauce.” The Zochness Monster is the most popular item on the menu. “That can feed two, three, four people,” Barnes says. “It’s three-and-a-half pounds of pure seafood heaven.”
Even if Barnes hadn’t invented his own language, he’s a captivating character to behold. When visitors come from outside Pennsville, or frequently from outside the state of New Jersey, Barnes greets each and every one of them in his signature Zinglish, wearing a floppy blue chef’s hat like a beacon. On social media, he posts videos of Zoagies devotees who traveled from Connecticut, New York, Washington D.C. — or Zonnecticut, New Zork, and Zashington, D.C., as Barnes diligently reminds his followers — just to get a taste of his legendary deep-fried sandwiches. “My whole kit is about love and good energy and bringing people together,” Barnes says. “Our fresh seasoned marination is going to be all over the nation.”
The sandwiches — with a side of crinkle-cut fries and fried Oreos for dessert— are worth the drive, too. “We’ve become a tourist attraction,” Barnes says. “The average person that comes to Zoagies has traveled an hour.” The drive from Philly is little more than 45 minutes, and during the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for people to drive to the little gravel parking lot across the street from the gas station — where Barnes had previously posted up — from even farther away. 2020 was Zoagies’ best year ever: “We hit numbers that we’ve never hit before because people were bored and locked up and depressed,” Barnes says. “Zoagies is a place of light.” (He’s quick to emphasize, though, that “we had zocial zistancing.”)
Zoagies may have put Pennsville, New Jersey on the radar for people all over the country, but Barnes doesn’t want to stop there. He was born and raised in Salem, New Jersey, the town next door. “Salem is an impoverished town,” Barnes says, which is why he says he’s committed to making the area — a small beachy community right near the Delaware River — a tourist destination again. To that end, Barnes is planning Zoagie Land, a patch of property near the entrance to Salem, where soon the Zoagies truck, plus the town’s best Jamaican truck, halal truck, and ice cream truck will be permanently parked.
“We’re going to bring people from all over the country to little old Salem — celebrities, all types of important people, they’re going to come to my community,” Barnes says. “When you come into Salem, the first big thing you’re going to see is, ‘Welcome to Zoagie Land.’”
Zoagies is located at 693 South Broadway in Pennsville, New Jersey. It’s open every day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Walk-ins only. Website.