Chicago Johnny's (Lakeville, MN)

  • Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
  • Star Tribune South
  • January 7, 2004

Notice the African bazaars, Asian markets, and Mexican panaderías around the area. Even in the far-flung suburbs, the white-bread woebegone Minnesota facade is being replaced by wild new tastes from far-off lands. Well, Chicago, anyway.

Chicago Johnny’s in Lakeville serves hot dogs. If you want to pass as a Chicago native, order a “hot dog loaded.” You’ll get the classic Vienna all beef hot dog. You’ll get a poppy seed bun, steamed. This will come topped with mustard, a violently green relish (called piccalilli), diced onions, sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear and small mildly hot peppers (called sport peppers). The whole dog is seasoned with celery salt.

This combination of color and flavor produces an astoundingly good sandwich. The mustard, onion and peppers have the intensity, the tomato soothes, the bun provides a good bland balance to the wild succulent garnishes, and the dog makes the whole flavor package work.

Notice the list does not include ketchup. It’s just not done.

The roll simply won’t be able to answer its call to duty. It will disintegrate during your last few bites, but take it in stride. You’re having the authentic, messy experience. There’s a roll of paper towels at your elbow for a reason.

Should all this seem like a bit much, order a chili dog, with or without onions. Or a cheese dog. You can even get one plain.

Italian beef is one of Chicago’s lesser-known fast foods. It’s basically roast beef, slow cooked in beef broth, usually served in a long roll with various toppings. Italian beef joints are not as common as hot dog stands, but many still dot the Chicago landscape, providing comfort food to the cognoscenti, Italian or no.

Chicago Johnny’s serves Scada Italian beef, a Chicago standard. You can order it with barbecue sauce or cheese, but we prefer it plain. The only authentic Chicago topping for Italian beef is marinara sauce, which Johnny’s does not serve. When we talked to the owner, she said that it was just too messy. We think that messy is the point, and hope she’ll reconsider. We like sweet peppers on these, too.

You can also order a “Maxwell Street Polish,” which is a deep-fried Polish sausage with mustard, onions and peppers. Or a meatball sandwich, served with a hot marinara sauce, and optional mozzarella and peppers. Or an Italian sausage, spicier than the Polish and a bit salty, and served with either sweet or hot peppers, and cheese and tomato sauce if you choose.

Can’t decide? Order the Chicago combo, Italian beef and an Italian sausage in the same roll. We think this is a bit much, but there are people who love it.

Chicago Johnny’s does not sell fries, although they will be added to the menu in February. Chips is what they’ve got.

The restaurant is nothing much to look at. It’s in a nondescript strip mall. There’s one counter to place an order, and another against the wall by which to eat. In the back there are some tiny tables. We also consider this part of the authentic Chicago hot dog experience. Except that Chicago Johnny’s is cleaner than many hot dog places we’ve been to.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.