"I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone. There was no train station. There was no downtown" —The Pretenders
3503 Trabue Road, Columbus, OH 43204 (map); 614-488-0110; johnniesbythetrack.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Burger lives up to its name—supersized and super tasty
Want Fries with That? Sure, crispy and golden. Try the rings too.
You have to feel for Chrissie Hynde. First, conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh uses her song "Ohio" as the theme for his radio program, and now the same song is being quoted on a hamburger blog.
Hynde was an ardent critic of the Bush administration and recently opened an Italian vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio (tortuously called The VegiTerranean). But liberal or conservative, vegan or carnivore, the sentiments of her song ring true—there is a tension between progress and tradition.
Hynde song addresses the "malling" of America—replacing neighborhoods with unique houses and Mom and Pop stores with gated, prefab housing developments and strip malls with national chains. Our suburban landscapes threaten to look like the background of a chase scene in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon—the same scene replayed on an endless loop. It is an America that does not have much use for independently owned businesses—even those that have been around since 1948, like Johnnie's Tavern in Columbus, Ohio.
Johnnie's Tavern has remained a family-run business since its inception. Founder and family patriarch Dominic Lombard and creator of the the "super Johnnie burger" worked at Johnnies every day until his death in 2006 when he was 94-years-old. His son John now runs the place, insuring that it will last at least another generation.
At its heart, Johnnie's is a neighborhood bar with a pool table and the promise of Ohio's "coldest beer." But what you don't normally see at such places is families coming in with small children to eat food and drink little more than root beer.
The burger at Johnnie's is "super" in every sense of the word. It is certainly super sized, so massive that it comes cut in half and skewered with toothpicks to hold it together—otherwise, you would need to use three hands to hoist the hefty sandwich. Truth be told, giant burgers are rarely good, especially when they cost as little as the $6 that Johnnie's charges. But this burger is spectacular: It achieves a surprising synergy given its heft, but there is a careful layering of texture and flavor. The bun is a pillow-soft, seeded affair that does an admirable job of containing the enormous, over half-pound patty of fresh ground chuck.
When I requested the burger rare, the waitress expressed skepticism that it would be so. Indeed, it was not—there were some hints of pink, but it was mostly beyond medium. Despite being cooked almost all the way through, the beef, although not unduly juicy, remained moist throughout. It was a touch underseasoned, but had a respectable flavor.
I love rare burgers not only because they offer a different flavor than fully cooked meat, but also because of the textural contrast rareness imparts. The overcooked burger's mono-textural profile was not an issue when topped with molten cheese and the fresh and vibrant rabbit food. I wondered how it would fare without all of the toppings that come standard—lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion—and decided that it probably benefited from the additions. Served unadorned, it might be a bit bland. Big burgers cooked all the way through need a bit of help, which it probably where all these toppings came from in the first place.
When I fret about the seemingly ceaseless encroachment of corporatism over independently owned business, I remind myself of the burger at Johnnie's Tavern and I feel better. No fast food, fast casual, or even upscale chain can make a burger that comes anywhere close to what Johnnie's Tavern produces. While the hamburger is a universally appealing dish, it is the individual expression of it that makes it so, not that you can get the same one at every mall in America. If you find yourself in Columbus, I recommend you stop off at Johnnie's Tavern. Hopefully it will still be there, warding off the development of a strip mall.