Restaurant review: Blending Spam, Rubik’s cubes and hip-hop on East Johnson Street | Dining reviews
May 1, 2022 10 min read
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East Johnson Family Restaurant adds a quirky diner to the mix of eclectic small businesses on the 800 block of East Johnson Street.
Kyle Johnson and Gwen Shales opened the restaurant March 15 with a fondness for Spam, retro Rubik’s cubes and hip-hop music.
The canned meat adds a salty bite to a breakfast sandwich, the puzzle cubes serve as lively table décor instead of flowers, and hip-hop punched up a recent dinner on a Saturday night.
The couple, besides owning the coffee shop Johnson Public House one block east, also have Kin-Kin, a coffee-roasting business, plus an ownership stake in the upscale Mint Mark.
One of Mint Mark’s signature dishes is its roasted, deep-fried and perfectly seasoned cauliflower, and the fried cauliflower dish at East Johnson Family Restaurant is as good or better, putting the cauliflower ($9) in a pool of Aleppo aioli and hazelnut dukkah, that tasted similar to a curry.
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The smoky-sweet Aleppo pepper and dukkah, a Middle Eastern condiment with nuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin, was a novel and delicious way to eat cauliflower.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed cauliflower so much in my life,” said my friend, adding, “because they’re hiding the taste of the cauliflower.”
Truthfully, the cauliflower was sitting in the sauce instead of being bathed in it, so the customer controls how much is loaded onto each bite.
Another starter, cured trout ($14) was also a success, with four thin slices of trout and smoked whitefish spread, served with Potter’s rye crackers, sweet and dill pickles and pickled onions. My friend likened it to a fish charcuterie plate. Everything worked in every combination.
The soup of the day ($5/$7), loaded baked potato, had cheddar cheese, sour cream, green onion and enough bacon to justify the price, and was almost the color of split pea soup, which Johnson later said was due to leeks.
The chili ($5/$8) also came loaded: sour cream, shredded cheddar and onions. There was more beef than beans, which was a plus, but it was too salty and barely above room temperature.
The kids’ section of the dinner menu features four options served with fries and soft serve ice cream for $10, a price that seemed a bit out of whack.
Octopi’s Astronaut ($6 for 10-ounce glass), which leads off the beer list, and comes from the terrific Waunakee brewery, was a great discovery. A peanut butter chocolate imperial porter with 9% alcohol, it could be described as a dessert beer or at least a special occasion beer. My friend called it “almost flowery.”
The Smoky Sunrise cocktail ($9), which I tried on a brunch visit, had mezcal, tart cherry and fresh-squeezed orange juice ($9) and might have worked better with vodka, rum or even tequila. Mezcal was too strong a flavor for this drink. It’s better sipped neat.
The red flannel hash ($10) had good stuff going for it: shredded beets, rutabaga, carrots and potatoes, but was excessively greasy. It had two over-easy eggs on top and a choice of toast or English muffin, which was buttered lightly, but not toasted enough.
Better, believe it or not, was the Spam and egg sandwich ($11), which maybe cost so much because the much-maligned canned meat, made from ground pork and processed ham, was sliced thick and doubled up. Strangely, the sandwich also shows up on the dinner menu.
The meat worked in this sandwich because it was grilled and served along with other great components: a high-quality buttered English muffin; mostarda, a condiment with candied fruit and a mustard-flavored syrup; arugula; and an over-medium egg.
The classic breakfast sandwich is the same price, but has scrambled egg, bacon and American cheese. Both sandwiches should come with a side.
My two companions both had standard breakfasts by ordering eggs ($1.50), toast ($2) and hash browns ($4) a la carte. The hash browns, unlike the red flannel hash, weren’t oily, and were perfectly browned, something that’s rare when eating breakfast out. The well-buttered seed bread from Madison Sourdough was fantastic.
I later noticed this standard breakfast option on the kids’ menu for $10, including soft serve or soda.
One of my companions also got an overpriced buttermilk waffle ($9), which was light, attractively cut into two triangles, and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
The coffee ($3), unsurprisingly, was good.
Servers wear black T-shirts with the restaurant’s name and logo, and service on both of my visits was excellent.
In the morning, the small space is sunny, loud and bustling. From the windows, it’s fun to watch the foot traffic on the street. Across from the restaurant is The Robin Room, Little Tibet, plus tea, tattoo and vintage clothing shops.
There’s something about the simplicity of the name East Johnson Family Restaurant. There’s also something about the way Johnson and Shales have designed their space and their menu. And there’s something about Spam. You might like it more than you think you will.
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