Johnnie’s Grill – El Reno, Oklahoma

The 2005 edition of Roadfood–Don’t dare leave home without it or you stand to miss out on some of America’s culinary treasures as deliciously described by Jane and Michael Stern, revered restaurant reviewers nonpareil. Through fantastic food-finding forays, the Sterns have blazed a path through the highways and byways of America, chronicling their visits to restaurants heretofore known to and enjoyed only by locals. In the process, the Sterns have created an “eatin’ path” savvy diners eagerly travel.

One of the culinary treasures we experienced courtesy of the Roadfood tome is Johnnie’s Grill in pastoral El Reno, Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City suburb at which we had previously spent a few nights, unknowingly within a couple of miles of one of America’s best hamburger stands. That was before we availed ourselves of the Sterns’ savory sagacity and learned that El Reno is famous for onion-fried burgers, the preeminent practitioner being Johnnie’s Grill.

More than nondescript, Johnnie’s has the outward appearance of an old town diner that time forgot–in other words, it’s unadorned by the garish neon and grating signage of modern restaurants. In fact, Johnnie’s is an old town diner, established in 1946 and only recently expanded to accommodate 79 diners in relative, albeit certainly not stylish comfort.

Youthful fifty-something Steve Gallery is only the restaurant’s third owner and along with his son epitomizes the graciousness for which small towns are known. With pronounced homespun drawls they engage all their customers in conversation even as they ensure orders are taken and promptly filled. They were genuinely impressed when we told them we came all the way from Albuquerque just to partake of their famous onion burgers and more than curious as to how we knew so much about their modest establishment.

Since taking over the restaurant, the Gallerys had heard from several patrons how famous their restaurant was, but didn’t know the source of that fame until we showed them the Roadfood book which has logged thousands of highway miles during our own travels. They beamed as they read each word the Sterns penned and graciously signed the page on which the review of their restaurant was published (alas, misspelling my name as “Gail”).

The aroma of grilling onions greets you as you park your car and by the time you’re ready to place your order, those grilled onions will have likely triggered nearly salacious salivating. A spatula wielding grill man obviously well practiced in the craft mashes thinly sliced yellow onions with raw, thin, hand-formed patties, alternately grilling each side to ensure uniformity of onion dispersion. Caramelized onions adhering to the meat patty are then placed on a bun.

Johnnie’s onion-fried burgers aren’t “two hands to handle” burgerzillas that fill you up but don’t leave you satisfied. In fact, these burgers are almost waifishly thin yet exploding with flavor. Standard burger condiments are available, but you might find that appurtenances are absolutely unnecessary–not even green chile and for me that’s saying something. We wolfed down two of these wonderful burgers apiece and regretted not having ordered at least one more.

Had we ordered one more burger, however, we would not have had room for the Coney Island hot dog, yet another El Reno specialty. Although this crimson wiener hot dog is usually ordered with chili, a nearly pureed coleslaw might provide a more focused taste experience. As sweet a coleslaw as you’ll find anywhere (even though cut a little by mustard), this slaw is better than the slaw served on burgers in other parts of the fruited plain. The hot dog was something special, too, an innovative and memorable version of what can be a banal entree.

Johnnie’s Grill has its own pie man, a local baker who furnishes–if the pecan pie is any indication–primo pie. Concocted with a light corn syrup instead of the more common dark corn syrup, this pecan pie isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, has a generous amount of pecans and a light, delicate crust.

Johnnie’s has a full American breakfast menu. Regrettably those outstanding onion-fried burgers aren’t on that menu.

Johnnie’s Grill
301 South Rock Island
El Reno, OK
(405) 262-4721

LATEST VISIT: 18 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Pecan Pie, Onion Rings, Coney Dog

A&W All American Food – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

A&W

A&W All American Food in Rio Rancho

Family trips bore out the fact that my parents had saintly patience as their six kids sat in the back seat of the station wagon and belted out, “Let’s all go to A&W. The food’s just great at A&W.”

As kids, we pestered our parents with Madison Avenue jingles for every fast food restaurant we knew. A&W was our favorite–and for good reason. In the 60s, before McDonalds began to dominate the fast food genre, A&W was THE drive-up restaurant in which to dine with more than 2000 locations across the country.

Today, A&W has been relegated in some places to sharing space with gas stations and convenience stores. It also received a reprieve of sorts when purchased by the Pepsi restaurant subsidiary which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

A&W and Long John Silvers were recent acquisitions and in Rio Rancho as in other locations across the fruited plain, they share space. In the 60s, A&W’s family concept included burgers named for every family demographic–the papa burger, mama burger, teen burger, baby burger and even a grandpa burger.

The Rio Rancho location serves several “deluxe” burgers with the deluxe bacon double cheeseburger and deluxe cheeseburger being my early favorites. With a charbroiled taste, they are easily superior to those served at the burger monarch restaurants. Alas, while the buns and patties may be heated, the burgers are dressed with seemingly straight out of the refrigerator lettuce, tomatoes and pickles…and is it just my imagination, or did A&W corner the market on tomato ends (the end pieces usually thrown away)?

While burgers and hot dogs may be readily available, what A&W will always be best known for is their frosty mug root beer, one of the best beverages in the world. It’s hard to get nostalgic about A&W’s current incarnation, but that root beer certainly brings back great memories of the days in which A&W was king.

A&W All American Food
1011 Rio Rancho Blvd
Rio Rancho, NM
994-0590

LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 16
COST: $
BEST BET: Deluxe Cheeseburger, Hot Dog, A&W Root Beer

Pizzeria Bianco – Phoenix, Arizona

To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, aficionado Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors. His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, provides a definitive guide to a much-loved product that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add. To the surprise of many, Levine declared the best pizza in America (and the world, for that matter) to be made in the unlikely town of Phoenix, Arizona where the intensely brilliant Chris Bianco plies his trade as no other.

Before a business trip to Phoenix in 2002, I learned that a writer for Travel & Leisure magazine definitively proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco as “the best place in America for pizza.” I also read that in its 1998 edition, Zagat’s respondents rated Pizzeria Bianco the top restaurant in Phoenix with a lofty rating of 29. Despite these proclamations, I couldn’t accept that a pizza could possibly be that good. The impunity of all these blasphemers to place on the loftiest pedestal, a pizza crafted in the culinary wasteland of Phoenix, Arizona of all places!

As if validating a Pygmalian effect (a self-fulfilling prophecy that essentially says you get what you expect), I wasn’t as enamored during my inaugural visit to Pizzeria Bianco as its legion of fans–fans I thought to be deluded (here I was, Bob Newhart in a world of Daryls and Larrys). Not only did the spangled restaurant fail to live up to its billing, it wasn’t, in my estimation, even as good as some local wood-oven pizzerias.

My disappointment started with an appetizer called speidini in which skewers of Prosciutto de Parma are wrapped around Italian Fontina (a straw-colored Italian cheese with a soft flesh and a mild, delicate flavor) and served warm. It was much too salty for my taste, a consequence of very strong (and very authentic) Prosciutto. This antecedent to my pizza was accompanied by a wonderful crusty bread served with extra virgin olive oil.

The pizza which introduced me to the magic of Chris Bianco was the “Wise Guy,” a twelve-inch, thin-crusted, white (no tomato sauce) pizza with pecan wood roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage. Only the mozzarella made an impression thanks to its creaminess and pliable texture. Perhaps an unconscious desire not to succumb to mass hysteria would still not let me accept that perhaps, I was truly tasting greatness–yet, inexplicably this pizza left an indelible impression on my mind and I knew a return visit was inevitable.

Three years elapsed before my second visit, but rather than approach it with an admittedly preset opinion, I was determined that tabula rasa (a blank slate), not a desire to prove everyone else wrong, would dictate my ultimate impression. Count me among the believers! My second meal was an epiphany–a revelation that Pizzeria Bianco just might be the best pizza restaurant in the world. For my penance, I should say 5,000 “Hail Chris Biancos” as I sorrowfully rue the wasted opportunities for multiple visits.

My turnaround started with a salad of homemade mozzarella, local tomato and basil with extra virgin olive oil. The mozzarella was smoked to absolute perfection with a taste that left me wondering if I had just experienced the best mozzarella in my 47 years of fromage fanaticism. The flavor combination of fresh basil, garden fresh tomatoes and that trademark virgin olive oil made for a tremendous antecedent to what I hoped would be a better pizza than I first experienced in 2002.

Rather than risk another Wise Guy, I opted for the Rosa, another white pizza–a gem made with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary and Arizona pistachios. Let me say unequivocally that it was one of the two or three best pizzas I’ve ever had–at least the equal of some the very best pizzas of my youth in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The crust, although thin, is substantial enough to support the high-quality ingredients with which Bianco tops his creations. It is crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside–a masterful canvas for a masterpiece by a true maestro.

During both my visits, I arrived within seconds after the restaurant opened and within minutes, the small red-brick structure (built in 1929) had people waiting to come in. Situated in the historic Heritage and Science square, Pizzeria Bianco is not only loved by the masses, but by this once skeptical “doubting Thomas” who has seen the light of a wood-burning oven which crafts the best pizza in America, perhaps the world.

PIZZERIA BIANCO
623 East Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ
(602) 258-8300

LATEST VISIT: 27 October 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Rosa; Mozzarella Salad

Cornish Pasty Company – Tempe, Arizona

There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, the most maligned cuisine in the world culinary stage. As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police, the Germans are the engineers, and so forth, while in the European conception of Hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs. Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than British cuisine.

While fish and chips are probably what most Americans would answer if asked what constitutes traditional British food, the truth is British food is as diverse as its many regions. During the three plus years we lived in England, we made the most of our opportunities to explore the mystical land of mystery and lore and experienced not only much of its renown pub grub, but classic high-end cuisine that is as good as any in America. At the pubs, we consumed many a ploughman’s lunch (consisting of crusty bread, various pickles, a wedge or two of local cheese and sometimes salad) and ate steak and kidney pudding (with a suet crust) like locally indigenous personnel (a MASH term that has remained on my lexicon).

During many a weekend sojourn to the appropriately sobriqueted “Land’s End” at the extreme southwestern tip of the British mainland, we dined on Cornish pasties (pronounced pass-tee), a type of pie originating in Cornwall in the 1200s. Baked by wives and mothers of tin miners when tin mining was prosperous, pasties were formed into a semicircular shape with a crimped edge along one side so the miners could hold onto them while eating. One end of the Pasty would usually contain a sweet filling which the wives would mark or initial so the miner wouldn’t eat his dessert first, while the other end would contain meat and vegetables. Today, traditional Cornish Pasties are filled with steak, potatoes, onions and swede (rutabaga).

The concept of a simple miner’s pie served in cosmopolitan Phoenix, Arizona might sound antithetical, but it’s a concept that appears to be taking off well. The Cornish Pasty Company is the brainchild of Dean Thomas, a native of Gunnislake, Cornwall, in England, who came to America five years ago to seek his fortune. His restaurant is situated on University Boulevard not far from Arizona State University, an institute of higher learning in which students want their dollars to stretch far and their meal portions to sate them for a long time. At the Cornish Pasty Company, a hearty and delicious meal can be had for a meager pittance.

The restaurant’s interior, dimly lit during evening hours, is striking with a long bar in which to imbibe imported libations, tiny tables and photographs on the black (or grey) walls of miners plying their arduous trade. Loud rock music (real rock, not the cacophonous noise played on the radio today) blares from a speaker system while the intoxicating aromas of sauces and ingredients waft gently toward incoming patrons who will be challenged to select just which pasty to partake of.

Aside from the traditional pasty (steak, potato, onion and rutabaga), a lengthy listing of options is available for patrons of all persuasions–Italian, Hispanic, Indian, Cajun, Greek, vegetarian and more. Shaped somewhat like a deflated football (the American kind), one pasty will make a meal even for the most robust of eaters. Aside from salads, there are no appetizers or sides on the menu. Several non-pasty sandwiches made on homemade bread and served with chips (the American kind) are available for the meat and potatoes Joes who don’t want to venture out of their sandwich comfort zone.

If “The Porky” is any indication, the Cornish Pasty Company will be the site of many future visits. This picture-perfect pasty featured a baked bread pocket stuffed with pork, sage, onion, apple and potato served with a side of red wine gravy. In true miner tradition, the pasty is meant to be eaten with your hands much as you’d eat a sub sandwich. What makes The Porky so tasty is the pronounced taste of sage which is liberally sprinkled on the other ingredients. The uniquely aromatic and fresh seasoning melds well with the other ingredients to fashion a memorable meal.

The menu also includes two dessert options, one of which you opt for if bananas are your fruit choice of the day and the other for diners who subscribe to the “apple a day” edict. The banana is but one component that makes the Banafee Pie a tantalizing sweet-tooth option. A Graham cracker crust is topped with caramel, sliced banana and whipped cream to create a memorable finish to a remarkable dining experience. The Cornish Pasty Company is here to stay!

Cornish Pasty Company
960 West University
Tempe, AZ
(480) 894-6261

LATEST VISIT: 25 October 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Porky; Banafee Pie

Lee’s Sandwiches – Chandler, Arizona

For years, the American viewing public has been subjected to the bombardment of the airwaves with the exploits of Jared. Once a corpulent fellow who weighed 425 pounds, Jared metamorphosed into a 190-pound shadow of his former self largely through a calorie reduction effort comprised principally of submarine sandwiches proffered by America’s most prolific sandwich chain. Many of us caloric overachievers regard those commercials with skepticism–not that Jared could lose so much much weight, but that any sane person could eat such a mediocre sandwich twice a day for an entire year.

I could understand it if Jared’s sandwich diet was comprised instead of banh mi, the unrivaled Vietnamese sandwich that surpasses any chain produced submarine sandwich in America. Banh mi are the culinary remnants of French colonialism in Vietnam, a marriage so to speak of French culinary modus operandi, Vietnamese resourcefulness and Chinese ingredients.

An outstanding banh mi sandwich combines sweet carrots; fresh cilantro; thinly sliced, cold cucumber; marinated slivers of daikon; fresh coriander and eye-watering jalapeno with such optional ingredients as sliced jicama, basil or mint leaves, onion and more. The banh mi also includes meat, but not a lot of it so as to detract from the freshness of the vegetables. The true banh mi can be served only on a slightly toasted and buttered baguettine (small baguette). While French baguettes can be used, true authenticity calls for Vietnamese baguettes in which rice flour is mixed in to create a bread with a lighter texture and crispier crust.

In the San Francisco area where I was first introduced to banh mi more than a decade ago, one of the most prolific practitioners in the fine art of crafting a great banh mi is a San Jose based chain called Lee’s Sandwiches. With a cult following that crosses cultural barriers, Lee’s launched its 25th restaurant in 2005, the first outside of California in Chandler, Arizona. The 8,000 square foot Chandler superstore is the second largest in Lee’s fleet and the first of ten Phoenix area restaurants planned.

Lee’s expansive Chandler operation bakes fresh ten-inch baguettes in-house every 30 minutes. The fragrance of baking bread as you approach the restaurant is like the siren’s call of Lorelei, the beautiful young maiden whom men could not resist. The aromatic allure is irresistible. During lunch hour, patrons queue nine or ten deep to place their orders from among the menu’s tempting listing of both Vietnamese and traditional Euro-American sandwiches, all served on ten-inch baguettes. The menu also includes homemade ice cream, Vietnamese spring rolls, pastries, croissant sandwiches and fruit smoothies.

The sandwich menu is formidable with 38 sensational sandwich selections from which to choose, none of which will put a substantial dent on your wallet. The grilled pork sandwich exemplifies all that’s great about Lee’s–the ingredients (house mayonnaise, house pickle (daikon and carrot), green chili, cilantro, onion, salt, pepper and soy sauce) bulge out of the fresh, toasty warm baguette. Ten inches of sandwich in which neither ingredients nor bread overwhelm the other make for an outstanding sandwich experience.

Lee’s spring rolls come two to an order and are six by one inches of julienned vegetables, sprigs of fresh mint and shrimp encased in thin, transparent wrappers. The spring rolls are served with a more than passable peanut sauce.

The most refreshing way to wash down a meal at Lee’s is with a smoothie, varieties of which are available for every taste preference: avocado, banana, cantaloupe, carrot, cranberry, green bean, honeydew, Jack fruit, lynchee, mango, mocha, orange banana, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, raspberry, red bean, sapodilla, strawberry, soursop, taro and even durian, the fruit virtually no person of western birth seems to like.

Lee’s Sandwiches
1901 West Warner Road
Chandler, AZ
(480) 855-1778

LATEST VISIT: 25 October 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Pork Banh Mi; Honey Dew Smoothie; Spring Rolls

Cafe O – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Within a few weeks after its launch in late 2003, it seems all the restaurant critics for Albuquerque’s periodicals had waxed poetically effusive about Cafe O, a novel counter eatery whose menu purports to offer a “taste of the world.” Considering those food critics are all women, I pictured genteel dainty sized portions of water cress embellished finger foods and flavored teas served on real china.

Although tea was an integral part of the menu, it certainly wasn’t served on fine china and it definitely wasn’t your standard American tea. It’s boba tea which proved to be such a huge success that the proprietors Vi Luong and his wife Hoa launched a boba tea franchise that’s setting Albuquerque on fire.

The biggest draw to Cafe O is in the promise of an exciting, fresh menu as crafted by Hoa and her sister. The first menu item catching my eye was a Saigon Sub, known in Vietnam as a Bahn Mi and in most circles, as one of the best sandwiches anywhere. Cafe O’s version was absolutely wonderful, a perfect marriage of roasted marinated pork and other ingredients on a French baguette.

The menu also offers several freshly prepared hand-rolled spring rolls served chilled and served three per order. These spring rolls are the antithesis of fried Chinese egg rolls which have become blasé and boring. Cafe O enlivens its spring rolls with the imaginative use of diverse and complementary ingredients all served with taste awakening sauces. Erudite eaters will opt for the “sampler roll” offering in which you choose any three spring rolls–including other rolls that cost the same as the sampler itself.

  • A popular choice is the Tsunami Roll which features grilled salmon, shrimp, lettuce and cucumbers served with an eye-watering Wasabi cream sauce. The fresh salmon and intense Wasabi sauce will form a concordant Conga line in your mouth.

  • Aficionados of seared tuna won’t be able to resist the Tuna Roll–seared tuna, lettuce and cucumbers served with the aforementioned Wasabi cream sauce. It’s similar to a maki style sushi roll but enveloped by spring roll skins.

  • For a terrific taste contrast, try the Mango Salmon Roll which includes grilled salmon and a mango/pineapple salsa served with Ginger Vinaigrette. The tangy freshness of mango and the fishy salmon taste form a marvelous marriage of dissimilar ingredients.

  • The Beef Thai Roll features beef, Thai peanut sauce, rice noodles, lettuce, cucumbers and cilantro served with O sauce, a lively Nuoc mam fish sauce that emboldens the experience. For a spicier kick, you can add Sriracha hot chili sauce to any roll.

Vietnamese cuisine enthusiasts will love Cafe O’s noodle bowls, among which the Cafe O Bowl (a meal for two) is our very favorite. Served in a ten inch square plate, the bowl is a mélange of fresh ingredients that includes rice noodles, lettuce, cucumbers, cilantro, onion crisps, roasted peanuts, roasted pork, shrimp and sliced egg rolls served with O sauce. The fried egg rolls are fabulous!

Located within the confines of Noble Collectibles, you find yourself surrounded by comic books, videos, video games, trading cards and other affectations of the collector. The dining area is relatively miniscule, but you certainly can’t say that about the truly wonderful tastes experienced at Cafe O.

Cafe O
8216 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
CLOSED SEPTEMBER 1st, 2007
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2005
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 19
COST: $
BEST BET: Saigon Sub, The O Roll, Beef Thai Roll

Embudo Station – Embudo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Few things in life are as romantic as dining on the banks of the slowly trickling, mocha-colored Rio Grande on a crisp early autumn night with only a hint of moonlight to illuminate your partner’s visage–unless maybe it’s dining by that same river as it rages murkily, carrying off the Sangre De Cristo’s winter ablutions during its spring runoff. Located 25 miles south of Taos and 41 miles north of Santa Fe on Highway 68, the Embudo Station offers patio dining with unforgettable vistas and memorable meals.

The Embudo Station is steeped in history, having served as a narrow gauge railroad station for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (affectionately called the “Chile Line”) from the 1887 until 1941 when it was abandoned. In 1983, the Embudo Station was purchased by Preston and Sandy Cox, tax accountants who left Santa Fe’s rat race for the peaceful village life of Embudo. After spending two years renovating the rundown property, the Coxes launched a sprawling complex that includes a restaurant, brewery, smokehouse, rafting company, a smoked goods mail-order catalogue company, an arts and crafts store, and an overnight cabin.

The old station house was converted into a brewery in which more than 20 different ales are brewed (including green and red chile ales). The aromatic fragrances emanating from the smokehouse form a two-part harmony with nature’s own aromas, particularly in the early winter when fireplaces and stoves are ablaze with woods from the local forests. At the Embudo Station, the smokehouse specialties include ham, sausage and ribs, all of which are available on the menu. If you love barbecue, your best bet is the combination platter which features meaty pork ribs, spicy sausage and ham along with coleslaw and black beans. The meats retain a smoky taste despite being slathered with a tangy barbecue sauce.

The eclectic menu ranges from barbecue to steaks, grilled chicken, New Mexican entrees and several vegetarian choices. One of the house specialties is roasted rainbow trout (locally caught) roasted on a cedar plank which Preston prepared for Food Network luminary Bobby Flay. Recently (in 2005) reintroduced into the menu is the Embudo Station’s version of a green chile cheeseburger, a juicy quarter pound plus beef patty garnished with roasted green chile with a bite. It’s an excellent burger and is accompanied by sweet potato fries that might be the best of their genre in Northern New Mexico.

The New Mexico state legislature, which is criminally indecisive on “trivial” matters such as enacting tough DUI penalties but acts quickly on more “essential” matters such as designating a state cookie (the biscochito) and official state question (red or green) has surprisingly not designated chips and salsa as the official state snack. If it did, the Embudo Station’s version might make a good poster child. Served with yellow and blue corn tortilla chips, the salsa features chunky red tomatoes decorated with cilantro.

The Embudo Station also provides more than perfunctory choices for vegetarians. Both the red and green chile are vegetarian and make their presence felt on excellent New Mexican entrees such as the wild mushroom enchiladas with asadero cheese, black beans and choice of chiles. It truly is a vegetarian delight. Salad choices include an outstanding tomato salad with house-made mozzarella cheese, greens and a tangy vinaigrette dressing.

Dessert choices include key lime pie, a tart taste treat not that common in New Mexico restaurants. A molten chocolate individual cake with whipped cream cures all for chocoholic diners.

Embudo Station
PO Box 154
Embudo, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2005
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Barbecue Platter; Green Chile Cheeseburger; Sweet Potato Fries; Key lime pie

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