With the wafting aroma of smoked meats, Johndhi’s, a charming smokehouse restaurant on picturesque Rio Grande Boulevard welcomes you to Bar-B-Querque, a well-earned and time-tested sobriquet. Known as Geezamboni’s since its inception in 1988 until a name change in 2005, Johndhi’s is a North Valley institution popular all year round.
Owned and operated by John Nellos of Albuquerque’s first family of barbecue (the philanthropic Nellos clan owns three Quarters restaurants in the Duke City), Johndhi’s has an ultra hip, mega casual feel to it that belies the converted home structure in which it sits. The artsy ambience includes French posters, multi-hued Mexican ceramic masks and pictures adorning the walls. Strewn about the restaurant’s many nooks and crannies are interesting accoutrements such as an antique telephone painted in colors I often saw on a hippie bus bound for the Hog Farm near Peñasco where I grew up. The framed poster most appealing to foodies like me depicts Dagwood Bumbstead precariously perched on his tip-toes on a chair with his trademark, multi-story sandwich in one hand as he reaches for a jar of olives with the other.
From the outside, Johndhi’s has the appearance of a family home. There is no glaring, sensory-bombarding signage screaming at passers-by telling them it’s a barbecue restaurant. The telltale signs are the hazy smoke plumes which emanate from the premises and waft onto motorized conveyances like smoke signals beckoning them to stop and the number of those vehicles which turn right on Griegos to respond to those smoke signals. The parking lots are usually crowded.
Preceding the restaurant’s entrance is a wooden plank ramp replete with the distressed wood of a heavily trodden walkway. At the restaurant’s foyer stands a pillar completely covered in wine corks. Fittingly, two of the foyer’s four walls showcase well-provisioned refrigerators stocked with an enticing array of libations, including locally crafted micro-brews. The wine selection is reputed to be quite good.
Ironically when Geezamboni’s first opened, barbecue wasn’t even on the restaurant’s menu as Nellos endeavored a departure from the family’s barbecue tradition. Though often prompted to serve barbecue, it wasn’t until Al Unser of Albuquerque’s famous racing family provided the impetus (a small donation) for a barbecue pit to be built that the course of history would be altered, many would say for the better. Today, barbecue is the restaurant’s most popular draw, but certainly not the only one.
Johndhi’s diverse menu has something for everyone including sandwiches for which Dagwood Bumstead would risk life and limb. Sandwich options include gyros, the popular Greek sandwich constructed of a lamb and beef amalgam, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce. Nellos also honors his Greek heritage with Greek style chicken, hummus and pita and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). Other sandwich fillers include a seven-ounce top sirloin steak, a catfish filet, a grilled Reuben, a pastrami sandwich and even a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Of course, barbecue pork, link, beef and chicken sandwiches are featured fare. Vegetarian sandwich options include a tortilla-based hummus wrap replete with fresh vegetables.
A variety of burgers is also available, including one of the very best blue cheese embellished burgers in the Duke City. The dinner menu is indicative of the kitchen’s culinary talent. Beef eaters favor the New York strip steak while seafood lovers esteem the smoke salmon most. No meal would be complete without dessert and Johndhi’s is highly regarded in this gastronomic aspect as well.
What may surprise even the most savvy diners is the number of accolades earned by the restaurant, many not in the arena of barbecue. In 2009, Johndhi’s earned the critic’s choice award during the 2009 Souper Bowl in which I had the privilege of serving as a judge. Johndhi’s entry in that hallowed competition was a gazpacho soup, a long-time favorite, particular in the summer. This Spanish soup (generally made of chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers and herbs) is served cold but is refreshing any time of year.
Summertime at Johndhi’s means dining on the patio. The outdoor dining area remains surprisingly comfortable even in balmy summer thanks to an ingenious outdoor “swamp cooler” which is more akin to a mist generating pipe. Several trees add functionality with shade and esthetics with their greenery. The black steel smoker from which magic smoke emanates is another reason the patio is preferred seating as is the live music featured on occasion.
Other award-winning items include some of the best (and at times, most wonderfully piquant) green chile stew in town, far better than the green chile stew that helped made the Frontier Restaurant famous. With some entrees you also receive a sensational salsa with fresh, chopped up, not pulverized ingredients. It’s some of the best salsa in town, several years ago having earned “best salsa” in the Duke City honors.
Johndhi’s is full of pleasant surprises. During one memorable visit, my Kim and I shared a memorable almond orange salad which featured various greens, honey roasted almond slivers and tiny orange slices bathed in a tangy citrus dressing good enough to drink. With all there is to like about Johndhi’s, what may surprise you most is how little I regard the barbecue itself.
For a start, it’s better than the ‘cue served at Quarters, but there are similarities to the dynastic Nellos family barbecue. Similar to Quarters the sauce is far too generously applied to your meat orders, the differences being that Johndhi’s version is thicker and even more pronounced in its tanginess, sweetness and piquancy. The sauce has a tendency to overwhelm some entrees that might otherwise be quite excellent by virtue of the meat’s smokiness. My advice is to ask the very accommodating and friendly wait staff to go easy on the sauce.
The sliced, smoked brisket sandwich is served on a hero roll as are the smoked pork, barbecue turkey and spicy pork link sandwich (called “The Missing Link” on the menu). The BBQ spare rib sandwich is served open-faced while the chicken BBQ style (a boneless chicken breast) is served on a bun. It may not matter as my experience has shown the least messy way to consume these sandwiches is sans bread. That’s attributable to the surfeit of sauce.
The smoked brisket sandwich, when light on the sauce, is quite good. The brisket is tender and moist with a pronounced smokiness. A sandwich I won’t order again is the “Missing Link” in which several spicy pork links are topped with a tangle of onions and gloppy, sloppy, melted Cheddar cheese. While the links are also quite good, the onions and cheese subtract from the experience–and of course, there’s the sauce in which the entire sandwich swims (pictured above.
Sandwiches are served with your choice of fat fries, homemade potato salad, baked beans or coleslaw and pickle on request. The fries are indeed fat, big Texas sized fries we use to sop up surplus sauce. The baked beans are very good, some of the best in the city.
Burgers are hand-formed from fresh ground chuck steak and are garnished with your choice of ingredients. These bountiful beauties include such innovative options as a Hawaiian burger with grilled pineapple rings, a mushroom burger and of course, the ubiquitous New Mexico favorite, the green chile cheeseburger. The ground chuck steak provides the marbling that gives each burger the requisite juiciness burgerphiles love. My favorite is the blue burger which is loaded with blue cheese. It’s a superb burger. Ask for it with green chile and it’s even better thanks to a piquant chile that bites back.
Desserts include a refreshing key lime pie which will purse your lips with its tanginess. It’s not quite big enough to share which you probably wouldn’t want to do anyway.
Lest I forget, there’s something else about Johndhi’s I admire, not as a gastronome, but as a lexicologist. The menu is replete with clever slogans: “Home of the Barbecue Profit – Johndhi.” “We’ve been smokin’ the good stuff for years.” “Hip shakin’, Lip smackin’, Finger Suckin’ Barbecue.” That’s good stuff! So’s the restaurant!
In its October, 2006 post-launch (ballooning) guide to dining in Albuquerque, the Local iQ staff and its many contributors named Johndhi’s among their personal favorite restaurants, citing it “for it’s quiet North Valley location, quaint patio (warm in the winter, cool in the summer) and sheer variety of dishes — BBQ or otherwise.” It doesn’t take a genius IQ to know that Johndhi’s is a good choice any time of year, pre- or post-launch.
3851 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 8
BEST BET: Green Chile Stew, Blue Cheese Burger