There was a time when I would've argued that Johnson's Corner (I-25 at exit 254, north of the Berthoud exit) was the perfect diner, better than the Peppermill in Vegas, the State Diner in Ithaca, that joint on Telegraph Road in Detroit where I almost got mugged but ended up buying steak dinners for my mugger, my mugger's best friend and myself. Were God to come to earth looking for a chicken-fried steak and an order of biscuits, Johnson's Corner is where he'd have gone, and in my journeyman days, whenever I found myself within two state lines of Joe Johnson's smoky, grease-stained Eden, I just had to stop in.
Johnson's Corner had everything a great diner needed: history (it opened in 1952 and has never once shut its doors), a classic roadhouse menu full of hash, eggs, cheeseburgers and milkshakes, cinnamon rolls known nationwide, a chrome shop (because nothing puts a trucker in a talkin' mood like knowing he's got six hours to kill while Smitty hangs his new girlie mudflaps), its own chapel (just in case God ever did show up), cheesy road knickknacks in the gift shop (because a man never knows when he's gonna need himself a pound of elk jerky, a roll-brim, a plastic armadillo or the complete works of Bill O'Reilly on tape), and a bottomless cup of coffee strong enough to eat through leather.
Johnson's Corner was the joint I dreamed about when I found myself hunched up in lesser bastions of roadside Americana, was one of the many settings where I fell in love with my wife (over coffee, Marlboros and pie -- just like in any good American love story). And perhaps most important, Johnson's Corner was the place I figured I'd run to when the zombies finally rose from the grave and started eating people's heads -- like Emilio Estevez in that movie Maximum Overdrive, only fighting off hordes of the living dead rather than electric toasters and tractor trailers run amok. In a last stand against the undead, Johnson's Corner was always the spot I had in mind for my zombie Thermopylae.
But no more. For the past two years, Johnson's Corner has been operating while undergoing a massive renovation. The results were finally celebrated at a rededication last Wednesday, and while everyone there seemed pleased as punch about the transformation, I was miserable.
There's nothing of the old place left except the menu, some of the staff, and ghosts in the form of faded, black-and-white pictures hung all around. The crowded gift shop filled with its coffee mugs, weird candies, bottles of radiator stop-leak, tire-pressure gauges and strange, Jesus-based statuary? Gone, replaced with just another vast convenience store. The smoking section (an area comprising the entirety of the circa 1952 Johnson's Corner Cafe), with its beautiful counter, boot-scuffed tile, nicotine-stained windows and hordes of scruffy old men, truckers, farmhands, cowboys and wanderers? Wiped clean. Now the smoking area is a glassed-in aquarium set in the center of a warren of dining rooms, its entrance between the brand-new hostess stand and the line of cash registers.
I wouldn't have thought it possible to wash all the history out of Johnson's Corner, but it's happened. When I first walked in ten years ago, I felt like I was coming home. When I walked in last week, it was like I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and stepped into some Twilight Zone of maroon vinyl, clean Formica, burnished chrome and tile. It was all so slick and shiny and smooth, I felt like I was skating on Teflon.
I'd rolled up just in time for the 53rd anniversary and rededication ceremony, a quick celebration handled by third-generation owner and manager Chauncey Taylor and his wife, Christy. Representatives from the offices of Wayne Allard and Marilyn Musgrave were in attendance; state representative Jim Welker was there in person. There were a lot of thank-yous, a couple of stories about what life was like in the old days (dusty, hot and busy, pretty much the same as things were that morning) and a fast prayer by the pastor who worked the chapel: "Let us continue to be a place of rest and comfort for truck drivers and wayfarers," he intoned, as everyone bowed their heads and nodded.
I was standing behind Ida May, the closest thing Johnson's Corner has to a celebrity. She was the woman who baked the first cinnamon rolls ever sold here and continued baking them for a long time after. The kitchen still uses her recipe, and when Chauncey pointed her out in the crowd, she got a round of applause that should have gone on for an hour.
With the ceremony over and all the hands shook, I took a table in the smoker's aquarium. In honor of my lost love, I drank myself a pot of coffee, ate some eggs and one of Ida May's cinnamon rolls, spoke a while with a truck-drivin' man about the old place -- the counter with its grooves worn smooth by decades of elbows, the way you could never think about a stop here without your memories turning immediately to sepia -- and then picked a fight with a farm wife and her daughter about the previous day's election, arguing the fiscal neo-con side of the C&D debate like Napoleon refighting Waterloo, not because I felt that way or cared, but because this Johnson's Corner, with its new floors and spotless everything and wholly generic vibe, made me angry. My eggs and hash browns and coffee and cinnamon roll were all good, but ferchrissakes, I can get breakfast anywhere. Johnson's Corner used to be something special.
I don't begrudge the Taylors their attempt at modernization; since Johnson's Corner had been added to and expanded many times over the years, there were probably some serious issues that needed attention, and I can understand the want and need to create something new and lasting. You reap when the sun is shining, as a smarter man than me once said. You do what you can, when you can.
This place was new once before -- young when my father was -- and became mythic in its own sweet time. If it did it once, it can probably do it again. And so I'm already planning on coming back for the hundredth anniversary, when I'll be a very old man and both Johnson's Corner and I have had time to grow out of our second youths. But until then, I need to find another spot where I can hole up when the zombies come. Maybe the Breakfast King...
My favorite things: Just as I finished this week's review of Z Cuisine (see review), chef/owner Patrick Dupays pulled off a cool bit of Escherian sleight of hand by both shortening and extending Z Cuisine's hours in one fell swoop, turning it from a kinda weird weekday lunch/weekend dinner joint (with a screwy half-and-half schedule that always left me wanting one meal when only the other was being served) to a Wednesday-through-Saturday full-service operation. By adding one dinner (Wednesday) and losing an entire day (Tuesday, which wasn't doing anyone any good anyhow), Dupays now has a solid, four-on/three-off schedule.
But it's not like he's napping on those three dark days. He caters, he hosts private parties, and when I talked to him last week, he told me that he now spends Tuesday alone in his kitchen working prep and pantry, arranging stock, talking with his suppliers, collecting deliveries of squash and potatoes and beets. Now that the market season is winding down, he explained, some of his favorite green thumbs are coming straight from the fields to his back door with all those winter vegetables that push a true seasonal kitchen through the grayer months.
"It's amazing how much you can get done when there are no customers around," he said, laughing.
Last week I also stopped by Le Central, an on-again, off-again favorite French spot at 112 East Eighth Avenue. Owner Robert Tournier has had a rough few months, first with the loss of longtime chef Yoann Lardeux and sous chef Tobias Burkhalter to Steak au Poivre in Cherry Creek. (Both have since left and/or been fired from Marco Colantonio's joint, although I hear Lardeux landed in the pantry at Frasca in Boulder, which can't be considered anything but a step up from anywhere.) Their replacement, Richard Ruiz, died tragically and in the traces just three weeks after taking the post, and he was replaced by Laurent Loubot, who's doing his best to pull Le Central up out of a tough spot (see Second Helpings).
While researching Latin restaurants for my review of Sabor Latino ("A Lot to Like," November 3), I stumbled across a place that immediately rocketed to the top of my personal gastronaut hit list. Taco Loco, at 2284 South Chambers Road in Aurora, is one of those archetypal strip-mall Mexican operations with a half-dozen uncomfortable plastic booths, advertisements for Enramex and cheap phone cards with pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a small counter covered with handwritten menus and offers of tamales, pupusas, tacos and greasy pork sandwiches, all for just a couple of bucks apiece.
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In other words, exactly my kind of place. Taco Loco features a mix of Latin American cuisines, leaning heavily on the Mexican but also encompassing Peruvian, Salvadoran, Costa Rican and -- oddly -- Cuban street food. I had two fantastic desebrado tacos, with thin corn tortillas wrapped around meat that had been shredded and flash-seared on a hot grill until it developed a caramelized skin of crisp, fatty beef around all the tender, juicy beef inside. The carne asada was fresh and chewy and did better as finger food than in a taco (it kept falling out of the tortilla). The lomo del puerco torta was as big as a football, with spicy pulled pork crammed inside a small loaf of dense, crumbly, larded bread. And because the kitchen was offering a Cuban sandwich, I had to order that, too. It turned out to be thick-cut fried pork cutlets over a mass of cheese and guac and God only knows what else, with what tasted like a fried egg gumming everything together. If all that wasn't enough, Taco Loco also has a small but well-kept salsa-and-toppings bar set off to one side of the crowded dining room -- essentially just a kitchen cold table with all of its inserts filled with chiles, pico, onions and a variety of fresh salsas.
Here's the thing, though: I spotted people eating dishes at Taco Loco that I hadn't seen listed anywhere. It seems to survive on the trade of regulars who all seem to understand the strange flow of specials and scrawled menus and offers written on sheets of construction paper hanging near the register; only on my way out the door did I spy a small stack of printed menus that featured a lot of South American lunch plates, rice and beans, pl´tanos con crema (fried plantains topped with sweet cream, which I always see offered at these kinds of places a little too late), and all sorts of entrees that sounded great.
Still, Taco Loco is a wonderful little place -- hidden at the back end of the strip mall in a weird spot next door to a Mexican carnicería -- and the service was quick, friendly and very forgiving of my choppy Spanish. I'm already planning my return, when I'll order off the newest-looking sheets of construction paper (because those will no doubt be the specials the cook thought of most recently, and therefore the ones he's most excited about) and maybe throw in a normal lunch order, too. With prices this low, you just can't go wrong.
Leftovers: Sadly, longtime Swiss-Italian bistro Dario's seems to have finally surrendered. I liked the place ("Send in the Crowds," July 1, 2004), but it was never able to draw the kind of crowds now flocking to the Thin Man, St. Mark's and Milagro Taco Bar just down the street. When I drove by 2011 East 17th Avenue, the space was dark, and the phone is disconnected.