Driving down Route 38, Aaron McCargo Jr. frequently stops at Sunseng Supermarket — a Vietnamese grocery store in Pennsauken. At a small bakery counter, surrounded by cases of egg tarts and taro rolls, he orders the No. 4: a BBQ pork bahn mi sandwich on a baguette.
"The crunch, the spiciness, the flavors of the meat. That's what excites me," said McCargo, season four winner of The Next Food Network Star and a Camden native.
Inspired, McCargo decided to add the Vietnamese classic — reimagined as a hot dog — to the menu of Camden's first beer garden. The fun-loving 46-year-old is in charge of creating the menu for the eatery, set to open in late August on a now-empty lot on Market Street. Other stand-out items, he said, include an apple pie salad, tuna melt, and caramelized guacamole.
McCargo, who grew up six blocks away from Campbell's Soup headquarters, is influenced by Camden County's diverse array of foods. Patrons can expect bite-sized, re-takes on dishes he admires and a menu pre-approved by his trusty taste-testers, his three kids.
"Camden is a blank canvas with a ton of flavors," McCargo said. "We have a very good mix of cultures and varieties here."
Designing the menus has been a year-long process. Ideas often come to McCargo in dreams, he said. He keeps a notepad on his bedside table for when he wakes up with a new dish in mind.
McCargo first put on the apron around age 8. Growing up in Camden in the 1980s, McCargo witnessed the decline of Camden's population from over 100,000 to about 80,000 residents as crime swelled.
As a kid, he was tasked with making dinner — often spaghetti — for his five siblings. Some of his relatives worked at a former Campbell's manufacturing plant in Camden, and it was a trip to the facility that sparked his love for the famous Jersey tomato.
Attending Camden High School, McCargo said he had thrived in home education class, but "stuck out like a sore thumb" and was often bullied for his love for cooking. McCargo graduated in 1989 and worked at a number of restaurants while attending the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College.
In McCargo's childhood home, he acquired a taste for "bold flavors" and soul food.
"My parents never really brought me in the kitchen because it was just a matter of surviving," he said. "But I always had the dream to have restaurants here."
This will be McCargo's third foray into Camden's food scene. In 2005, he opened McCargo's Restaurant on Cooper Street and the laid back Daspot on Friends Street.
Tasked with drawing people into boarded-up Camden proved to be challenging, McCargo said. The restaurants closed in 2007 after he took a job as executive chef at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and made his first TV appearance a year later.
"I was bringing people from outside of Camden by word-of-mouth," he said. "I was sending out fliers and doing a lot of the leg work. … I was wearing so many hats."
This time around, McCargo said he can focus on the food. Marketing the restaurant will be easier with his star-power and a number of large companies now settling in Camden. Subaru of America opened at its corporate headquarters in April near Federal Street, joining a slew of companies lured into the city by state tax incentives, such as energy equipment manufacturing company Holtec International and the 76ers basketball team.
He's partnered with South Jersey entrepreneur Damon Pennington, who's handling the business side of things.
The two met about four years ago, when Pennington began buying up properties on Camden's Market Street hoping to add dining options to the mostly vacant block. Now Pennington and McCargo are working together on several projects, including the beer garden and adjacent Signature 315, a restaurant opening in the fall that will feature tapas, craft burgers, and cocktails.
Pennington's five projects are being supported by up to $80,000 in business improvement incentive grants. The pair are optimistic that the new ventures will keep people in Camden.