Standing Room Only: Prepare for Delicious Confusion at Johnny O's


[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Johnny O's

3465 South Morgan Street, Chicago, IL 60608 (map); 773-927-1011
The Short Order: Great neighborhood stand with gut-busting options.
Want Fries with That? A missed oppurtunity
Seats? You can go inside, but if you order from the window there are some picnic tables around the corner.

I walked up to Johnny O's with the intent to fall in love. I have a serious weakness for old school Chicago stands, especially ones with faded signs and walkup windows. Added to this, Johnny O's specializes in two hard to find Chicago classics: the breaded steak sandwich and the mother-in-law. Very few places serve either, and I've never been anywhere that served both.


Located at the corner of 35th Street and Morgan in Bridgeport, Johnny O's is actually part stand and part liquor store. If you'd like, you can go inside and eat, but for the sake of this review I was only interested in the to-go option.


But first, I had to figure out how to order, and for a newbie like me, this is far more confusing than it needs to be. Sure, to the right of the window is a menu listing most of the dishes, but look closely and you'll see that both of the stand's most popular items are nowhere to be seen. What's the deal?


After staring blankly at the menu for a minute, wondering if the dishes would suddenly pop out like a very old fashioned autostereogram, I finally realized that the breaded steak sandwich ($6.39) was listed on a separate sign by the window.


Compared to the juicy breaded steak at Ricobene's, Johnny O's version comes across as thin and slightly overcooked. Also, there isn't nearly as much sauce. Fortunately, this breaded steak has a saving grace, one that forgives all sins. If you ask for fried cheese on top, the cook will take a handful of shredded mozzarella and toss it on the griddle, where it melts down to a sheet of browned, bubbling goodness. It's wonderful. Of course, the option is not on the menu, so you'll have to remember it. I first learned about it from Mike Gebert's video profile of the place.


As for the mother-in-law, which managed to snag the number 6 spot on TLC's Best Food Ever countdown, I never found it. Making a wild guess, I ordered the chili tamale ($2.59) and hoped for the best. But all I got was a cup of chili with a cornmeal tamale tossed in. It's not terrible, but definitely not what I was expecting. Was this actually the mother-in-law?

Prepare to be confused.

If you watch the TLC clip, the mother-in-law is presented as a cornmeal tamale on a hot dog bun with chili. This is backed up by a Gebert's interview with the owner, John Veliotis. But according to an old LTHForum post from 2005, the mother-in-law used to be listed on the menu in quotation marks next to the chili tamale, and it was served in a cup instead of on a bun. Two years ago, Titus, from Smokin' Chokin and Chowing with the King, also confirmed that the mother-in-law at Johnny O's is served this way. I should note that the name is no longer on the menu, meaning that the definition changed over time, or that someone is intentionally trying to mess with my mind. Moving on.


I wish more care was spent on the hot dog ($2.39), which has most of the components I expect on a fully-loaded Chicago-style hot dog, but without the attention to detail. The hot dog is skinless, the tomatoes are mealy, and limp pickle chips are used instead of a crunchy pickle spear. If you really need a dog, it will do, but 35th Street Red Hots and Morrie O'Malley's nearby, I'd skip this one.


The same could be said about the fries, which are frozen and barely salted.


So, one very good breaded steak sandwich spruced up with a glorious sheet of fried cheese. Not exactly the true-love experience I was hoping for, but I think that if you really want to know the ins and outs of Johnny O's, you have to visit more than once.

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