Lucy’s Favorite Frank? Scarfing Johnny’s Lunch
On the occasion of Lucille Ball's 101st birthday, it might seem fitting to pay tribute to a candy factory, or Vitameatavegimin, but since I happen to be in the vicinity of her native Jamestown, NY (where the annual Lucyfest just wrapped), the chance discovery of another local legend, Johnny's Lunch, made me wonder if perhaps this might have been Lucy's favorite hot dog joint?
It's fun to wonder, though the reality is that Johnny Colera opened his first lunch counter in 1936, by which time Lucy had pretty much sworn off Western New York for Tinseltown. Still, 75 years is a pretty decent pedigree for a hot dog joint, so I was eager to find out What The Fuss?
Having recently begun franchising about five years back (Branches in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania... and the Ukraine??), there are a few slick elements inside--big shots of the food on the table tops is a clever idea--mixed with the general mid-century diner vibe, but the menu remains focused on Johnny's pride and joy, Sugardale hots covered in what they call Texas Hot Sauce. Apparently short-notice catering is a specialty, judging by the sign which calculates how much it will cost for up to 60 dogs (you order them in threes, I guess that's just the thing).
Johnny's Texas Hot Sauce is basically a thinned-out chili, a charming vestige of an earlier time when even regional specialties seemed exotic. Here they basically like to put it on anything they can--the dogs, the fries, the onion rings--hell, they'd probably float some in one of their milkshakes if you asked nicely.
They also offer 1/4 pound all beef dogs in a number of "gourmet" varieties (along with your more or less basic chicken and fish), but what's charming is the fact that they retain a few quirks like buttermilk and rice pudding. Ain't gonna find those at Wienerschnitzel are you?
Anyway, to get as much of the experience in one visit as possible, without hating myself, I got one classic trio, a Chicago dog (they also make Wisconsin, Jersey, Spicy Buffalo and New Yorker varieties), some of them there Texas Fries, and for giggles, a milkshake made with the local Loganberries. Yes, I was sharing.
The standard dogs are not dissimilar to your basic NYC street dog, but without much snap, both meat and bun are soft and the sauce and heaping of white onions threaten to burst the bun-boat. The "gourmet" dog was noticably higher quality, though one might question its Chitown authenticity. While it had most of the ingredients (chopped jalapeno instead of sport peppers, though, and no poppy seed bun) they were coarse-cut and piled on in an unseemly manner none inside the Loop would endorse. This bun didn't have a chance.
The fries were pretty standard, not bad, nothing too special. Mom asks "Is this like the fries that we had in Canada?" You mean poutine? Uh, sorta...no. The loganberry shake was great though, with a flavor just between black cherry, açai and strawberry, and perfect thickness.
I wouldn't call Johnny's Lunch some kind of life-changing destination, but it's above-average drunk food, or a quick fix that beats the big boring brands.
Oh, and coming soon to 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, it says here. Papaya King, watch your back lol.