May 19, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

Restaurant review: Blending Spam, Rubik’s cubes and hip-hop on East Johnson Street | Dining reviews

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 owners of East Johnson Family Restaurant have a coffee shop and coffee-roasting background.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Cauliflower

The cauliflower sits in a pool of Aleppo aioli and hazelnut dukkah, which tastes similar to a curry.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Trout

The cured trout paired trout and smoked whitefish spread, and served them with Potter’s crackers, pickles and pickled onions.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Soup

The soup of the day ($5/$7), loaded baked potato, had bacon, cheddar cheese, sour cream, green onion and leeks.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Chili

The chili comes loaded with sour cream, shredded cheddar and onions. 


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Beer

Octopi’s Astronaut is a peanut butter chocolate imperial porter 


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Hours

East Johnson Family Restaurant is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Breakfast sandwich

The Spam and egg sandwich has two thick slices of the much-maligned canned meat. 


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Breakfast

A standard breakfast with everything ordered separately. 


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Waffle

The buttermilk waffle is light and attractively presented.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Interior

The restaurant seats about 40 people.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



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.







Exterior

East Johnson Family Restaurant opened on the 800 block of East Johnson Street in mid-March.


Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal



Read restaurant news at go.madison.com/restaurantnews.