Second Helpings

The real counter culture at Johnny's Diner

This is my fear: Someday, this modern turn toward the glorification of quote/unquote regional American cuisine and New American and modern American fusion will destroy what little we have left of the true American cuisine. Someday, many years from now, some smart-ass food writer is going to start waxing metaphoric about the roots of American cuisine — the real, serious, heavyweight stuff at the base of the pyramid — and he's going to talk about...goat-cheese salads. He's going to talk about house-made mozzarella and pork chops with tomatillo salsa, about cheeseburgers made from branded animals and french fries that don't come frozen in a waxy, five-pound sack.

He's going to talk about places like the Empire, which I review this week, as typifying American food during the watershed years at the beginning of the 21st century. And I am going to have to rise from my grave like a zombie, go lurching off into the night to find this young, smart-ass food writer, and beat him to death with a Taylor pork roll (which I will, of course, have been buried with).

I worry that places like the Empire (or Snooze or Steuben's or what have you) will eventually subsume the joints from which so much of their style and cuisine is taken — this notion of the greasy spoon without the grease, the neighborhood dive without the neighborhood. And thus, out of guilt and fear and a kind of time-warp homesickness for a thing that has not yet gone, late last week I found myself bellying up once again at Johnny's Diner for my occasional usual: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, a cherry milkshake and a ham breakfast burrito wrapped for walkin'.

The car-cult decor, liberally flavored with '50s rock-and-roll paraphernalia and Buddy Holly on the radio; the cash-only counter service; the smell of hot fryer oil and charred onions and industrial floor cleaner; and the grease caked on the fryer backsplashes in the open kitchen that has probably been there since before I moved to the neighborhood; the cooks working in stained dish jackets and talking incessantly, loudly, about music and girls and TV and girls and girls; the corners cluttered with the detritus of twenty-odd years of business. Johnny's is a true classic, keeping the flame of real Americana alive. Cheeseburgers and fries and shakes and omelets and patty melts and burritos that aren't even remotely Mexican are pushed through a window beneath the hanging trunk of an ancient Plymouth or Buick hot rod. I love it here, both for the food (that which doesn't kill me...) and for the history of the food — the long, sturdy connection, passing from line cook to line cook, of an American cuisine that may be altered, modernized, fused and fucked with, but will not ever die.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan