Monday, June 30, 2008

Johnny's Cafe

Restaurant: Johnny's Cafe
Address: 4702 S 27th St
Genres: steak
Check Constraints: 18% for groups of 8 or more
Chain: No. | More Omaha Locations: No.

  • Cottage Cheese Spread ($2.75)
  • Luncheon Steak with Mushroom Sauce ($8.95)
    • Fries
    • House Salad with House Dressing
  • Homemade Bread Pudding ($3.95)
  • Iced Tea ($1.75)
There are some places in Omaha, or in any city, where Time seems to have decided that its work there was done, and moved on. These places are isolated oases of tradition; living museums that persist due to an almost magical quality about them. Johnny's Cafe is definitely one of those places. Originally a cafe for cowboys and other workers at the nearby Stockyards, Johnny's used its location to reinvent itself as one of Omaha's first steakhouses, and has been around for 78 years since. That's quite a legacy.

When I say Johnny's is a living museum, I'm only partially exaggerating. The decor seems to have become stuck in the late 1970s, and though the air smells a little musty the building itself remains elegant. I particularly liked the bronze sculpture set into the door, and the carpeting, but I'll hold off on further critique. This isn't geeks.rate(interiorDecorating).
The menu retains a little of the same antiquity... I have never seen cottage cheese as a menu item not paired with a fruit of some kind, and even that is restricted to smallish cafes and diners. It doesn't overextend itself, nor try to upsell itself as a ritzy chop house. There's something to be said for maintaining your place in the world.

The cottage cheese spread was interesting. Small-curd cottage cheese was blended with herbs and served with an assortment of crackers, and it wound up tasting like a sharper and firmer version of what you might expect out of a cream cheese dip. It's more than enough to share among several people, and as ND will probably attest later, it makes their garlic cheese bread more delicious. Even if you don't like cottage cheese, you might enjoy the spread.
The steak came in a clearly-homemade mushroom sauce, which had a heavy beef flavor and was very, very full of gelatin from the rendered beef. With sauces and the like it's hard to say how the average quality will be based on a single visit, but if the sauce is always this way, it may put off people who like a more consistent and liquid gravy. Still, the flavor was delicious, and it paired well with the steak. It was also good for dipping my fries into. The one downside is that the actual steak taste was overpowered by the sauce - if you're looking for just an excellent cut of meat, go with one of their dinner steaks (which you can order specially even if it's lunch time, just ask). The house salad wasn't much more than a pile of iceberg lettuce. The house dressing was good, but in this case didn't taste like much more than a simple vinaigrette, very heavy on the vinegar.

The bread pudding, however, was fantastic. I confess to not having had many bread puddings in my day, but this was certainly the best I've had thus far. A surfeit of cinnamon, raisins, and general spice went well with the Jack Daniels they use for flavor, and the texture toed the delicate balance between firm and mushy very well.

Johnny's is an interesting place to get an interesting meal; as long as you understand that and don't come here expecting white linens and $40 strip steaks, you're going to get some good food and come away satisfied.

  • Garlic Cheese Bread ($4.95)
  • Roast Turkey with Stuffing ($6.95)
    • Side Salad w/house dressing.
  • Strawberry Cheesecake ($4.45)
  • Iced Tea ($1.75)
Cham is right, the cottage cheese dip is good stuff, at a really low price. Definitely worth trying. Their garlic cheese bread has a lot of two things. Cheese and bread. The bread makes Texas toast look kinda skinny, and they put a hell of a lot of cheese on top, and just enough garlic. Adding the cottage cheese dip just makes it even better, assuming that you, like us, enjoy an orgy of cheese. The side salad was an ordinary side salad, though the house dressing, which I opted for after a description of "a vinagrette with lots of garlic", is exceptionally good.

I sorta wanted to try a steak, but with my options seriously curtailed by love of mushrooms, I opted instead for the roast turkey special. It is pretty special, I will say. While the turkey was nothing amazing, the gravy and stuffing are what made it really worth the price. I grew up with the unholy concoction that my extended family called "stuffing", which consisted of bread and whatever crap they could come up with to throw in with it. Apples, raisins, and other, less delicious things found their way into that stuffing. This stuffing is nothing like that. It is pure. Bread, delicious juices, and a heap of equally delicious spices, baked into a mushy, but not too mushy mass. I was considering getting a container of the stuff to go, if that was possible. It would have been worth the price.

The cheesecake was a damn good finisher, though I think it's not quite as good as the wine sundae or the bread pudding. The strawberry sauce was almost certainly not homemade, but the cheesecake itself definitely was. It's not quite like any other cheesecake I've had. It has the texture of a whipped cheesecake, but the density of a standard cheesecake. it was odd and also delicious, but definitely not as good as that bread pudding.

Looking back, I realize that I got all that food for less than twenty bucks, and I can't help but think I got a pretty good deal. Johnny's definitely doesn't jack up their prices on account of being an Omaha landmark.

  • Stockman's Steak Sandwich ($7.95)
  • Apple Pie ($2.95)
    • Ala Mode: 1 Scoop ($1.50)
I kinda liked the decor, honestly. It gave the place a very unique style and mood, even if it was really quite dark. The cottage cheese spread was pretty good. It was definitely something I hadn't seen before. The menu says it's a Johnny's tradition. It's a bit thicker than I had imagined it would be, but that helped it stay on the crackers better. It was worth giving a shot, especially at the price. The cheese bread was simple and good. Nobody has mentioned the sauce yet, but I believe it came with a marinara-like sauce that they others thought might be pizza sauce. Nobody has mentioned the shrimp either, but that's probably because Maple was the one to put it on his ticket. We split the cost of a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp. They came in an actual pail over ice and came with some cocktail sauce. It was one of the most expensive appetizers, but you do get a lot. They were also simple and good.

The main dish came with a side, and I chose noodle salad. It came out first, with the other salads. It was a small bowl, but it was piled high with a couple types of noodles and bits of veggies. It actually had a really sharp and kind of tingly taste. Cham likened the flavor to the kimchi we had a while back. I agree, but only slightly. The tingling was the main similarity, and it wasn't nearly as strong. I actually thought the flavor of the noodle salad was really good.

I couldn't have asked for more with the sandwich. It is described like a Philly on the menu, and it pretty much is. It had beef, cheese and onion, but the steak pieces were thicker and there was more cheese. It came on a roll that was only a bit wider and about as long as a hot-dog bun. It was just crispy enough, and just the right amount of sandwich. The steak was tender. The cheese was plentiful. The onions were mostly hiding and don't get in the way of the rest of it. I really liked this sandwich. It did come with fries, but they were not really noteworthy.

They claim their apple pie is "better than grandma's", but I wasn't quite so impressed. There was also an option for cherry pie. It may have been better warmed up, but since I didn't ask for it that way, it came cold. You could add one or more scoops of ice cream. I think it could have used a bit of something, like cinnamon, but still it was ok pie. I'd recommend asking for it warmed up, however.

  • Prime Sandwich ($11.45)
  • Bucket o' Shrimp ($13.45)
  • Soda Pop ($1.75)
Jay and I decided to split a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp, because they had a bucket of shrimp on offer. It came out in a small metal pail. I think the menu said it was 1/2 pound. As Jay said, they were simple and good, however I found the cocktail sauce a little underwhelming. It was ok sauce, but just didn't have the kick of horseradish I would have liked. I was pleasantly surprised by the cottage cheese spread. It was the size of a normal portion of cottage cheese that you might see as a side for one person, but with the thickening they did to it and the use of crackers, it went a lot farther than I would have expected.

For my entree I got an open faced prime rib sandwich. This translated into a half inch slice of prime rib laying on top of a slice and two halves of toast with a side of au jus and a side of french fries. It was delicious. The meat was just a shade off of pink and tender. The bed of toast gave a touch of saltiness that was well received. I didn't make much use of the au jus, because it really wasn't needed. The french fries were ok, but nothing special.

  • Onion Rings ($5.35)
  • Triple Decker Club (w/Chips) ($6.95)
  • Wine Sundae (1 scoop) ($2.15)
There's a line of resturants in Fort Wayne, IN, that tend to carry a similar 'dark old-timey' feel (Hall's Resturants) and so this place was actually a nicer version of said decor, and I really liked that.

As to the food, the Onion Rings here were pretty solidly done, not slippery. Cham asserted that they probably used their Catfish batter to do the battering, which didn't make them bad. More traditional and a bit more flavorful than Mama's, but it depends how much you like that salt on Mama's. The shrimp were shrimp, simply presented and with an okay sauce. I still maintain that a bit of the Jack Daniels type flavoring on their shrimp would work well... then again, see TGIFriday's mass market Jack Daniels Grill. The cheese bread was solid warm cheesy bread, and I really didn't get a strong taste out of the cottage cheese spread, but it wasn't bad, even though cottage cheese tends not to do it for me.

The Triple Decker Club might be more accurately described by some as a bacon sandwich to some people, because the flavor was so strong... but there really was a solid balance of textures and some flavors in it, tomato and turkey both. And I always thought of triple decker as requiring three sections of stuff, not three pieces of bread, but they went the second route with this one. Still sizable and it tasted very good. I'm glad they didn't take the tomato out despite the salmonella scare. The chips that come with it are at least decent bag chips, as they seemed too homogeneous for home made. They did an excellent job with the bacon, though, crisp without being burnt. Thumbs up.

The wine sundae was interesting. It tasted like sherry, to me, over vanilla, which was a very simple but delicious mix. And it's the kind of thing one could easily do at home! If they had, say, gobs of sherry for some reason. Not that I know anyone like that.

The sum-up here is positive, and you may feel a little bit underdressed in business casual given the place's atmosphere, and we didn't get to try any of the drinks (stupid work lunches) but that's no reason not to give it a shot for lunch if you're in the area. It was a long lunch for us, but that's because we aren't so much in the area, and you can probably get it in at around an hour, hour and a half if you're closer and don't order a billion appetizers.

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