Johnny be good

Currently, many of Johnny’s Lunch Box customers are construction workers from around the country working at the nearby Devon Energy skyscraper project.

“They tell me that coming in here and eating is like having mom’s home cooking, wherever that might be,” owner Ed Strawn said. “That’s a neat deal, being able to please people from all over America.”

To accommodate this hungry crew, Johnny’s has even added Saturdays to the normal, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday hours.

Johnny’s is an unpretentious, onestory building right across the street from Stage Center and next door to the Greyhound Bus Lines depot. Inside, its cafeteria steam tables are polished stainless steel, and the booths are dark mahogany. A collection of handwritten notes and a couple of poster boards serve as the extensive menu.

“We haven’t dropped a single item since 1946,” Strawn said. “We’ve just added things like chicken Caesar ($5.54) and other salads.”

Reading everything on the menu can be a little overwhelming on your first visit.

The Thursday special — a large smoked pork chop with two sides, butter and bread ($6.23) — sounded good. And it was. The chop was thick and delicately smoked. My sides of creamy macaroni and cheese and turnip greens were right up there with the best soul food the metro has to offer.

Drinks are serve-yourself at a fountain near the “board of directors” table set in the middle of the front dining room.

“The board table has been there since day one,” Strawn explained. “There’s a group of around 60 guys who come and go all day long and have lunch together there.”

He said a pair of regulars squabble about who is chairman of the board. “When I first took over this place from Johnny (Papahronis)11 years ago, I had to be careful to have the specials on the right days or they’d be all over me,” he said.

On this afternoon, a trio of welldressed elderly gents, including the original owner Johnny, was holding court over slices of the popular pecan pie ($2.25). Younger people hip to the cafeteria’s good value and generous servings were stopping in as well.

We haven’t dropped a single item since 1946.

—Ed Strawn

“Corned beef that we roast here for sandwiches ($3.92) and dinners ($7.15) is one of our most popular items,” Strawn said. “This may not look like a big cafeteria, but we have 17 other meats, too.”

Strawn was slicing from a gigantic, steaming brisket right at the serving line. The thick-sliced Reuben sandwich ($5.31) was an old-fashioned treat. Johnny’s makes several varieties of pie and bread that are baked in-house, and all vegetables are prepared fresh. Johnny’s sell hundreds of whole pies for carryout during the holidays.

“We whip real Idaho potatoes throughout the day,” he said. “Unlike a lot of cafeterias, we never stop cooking. Some places just cook in the morning and keep food in warmers all day, but not us.”

Side dish veggies I tried, including Brussels sprouts and green beans, were not overcooked. Candied carrots were cut big and ugly, just like at home. Pot roast ($6.23) was so tender it could be eaten with a spoon. A friend had tipped me off to the garlic lemon chicken ($6.23), with its distinctive Mediterranean flavors, and it was a good pick.

It’s unusual to see knockwurst plate ($5.07) or franks and baked beans ($5.07) on a menu, but Johnny’s has them both, along with cottage cheese or tomato and onion salads in tiny cups.

Strawn said tight bus schedules don’t bring in many customers from the Greyhound station next door. But that’s not always the case.

“When we had the ice storm, I wasn’t the only one stuck down here,” he said. “Five buses full of people weren’t going anywhere, so we fed them breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days.”

If you have to be stranded on the road, right next to Johnny’s Lunch Box would be the place to be.

Doug Hill

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