Kyle Johnson and Gwen Shales are pulled in a lot of directions these days. But luckily for this husband-and-wife restaurant team, two of those directions are only about a block away from each other. In March, Johnson and Shales, who own Kin-Kin Coffee and have run the popular Johnson Public House together for the past decade, realized a longtime dream by opening the East Johnson Family Restaurant. What began as a new potential location for Johnson Public House has become a casual, family-friendly diner serving foods inspired by the couple’s culinary passions.
Those passions run a pretty wide gamut, from fried cauliflower to brunchy benedicts to a spicy-hot fried chicken thigh sandwich – and hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. Multiple options with different toppings, in fact.
“At first people were like,‘ Hot dogs? What? ‘ ”Says Johnson, smiling sheepishly as he sits at one of East Johnson Family Restaurant’s cozy tables about an hour before the doors open and the Friday dinner rush launches. “But they’re becoming a popular item that’s being ordered by not just the kids who come in but everybody, so that’s kind of fun.”
Fun’s a big part of the vibe, to be sure, but the culinary pedigree is also solid. Maggie Roovers, formerly of Forequarter, helped Johnson and Shales hone the menu as a consultant. Michael Davis works as head chef.
“What’s special about JPH is this all-inclusive vibe there – anybody from any walk of life can walk in and feel comfortable and get quality food and quality drinks,” says Johnson. “We wanted to pass that on here as a full-scale restaurant version.”
Three Dishes to Try
Three Chances | Eggs Benedict
You can order eggs Benedict three ways for brunch at East Johnson Family Restaurant. There’s an option with house-cured trout and a Florentine version with kale, but for Johnson, the basic version is where it’s at, with eggs, ham and hollandaise. Chef Davis’s poached eggs are a thing of practiced beauty, perfectly round and cooked, creating a yolky, photo-quality delivery system that oozes onto a mountain of ham, hollandaise and English muffin. It’s only available Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
Say Cheese (burger) Fam-Favorite Burger
There’s often a sweet simplicity to the types of food Johnson and Shales are drawn to, and it’s evident in one of the entrees Johnson insisted be a central part of the menu – a cheesy, sloppy, classic burger. Johnson won’t dub the thin patty a smash, but it’s strong enough to hold up the house-made American cheese, pickles and special sauce. Pair it with an order of the thick and crispy french fries, and it might just become your favorite.
Like Magic | Fried Cauliflower
The word “fried” is a tricky misdirect when it comes to the fried cauliflower. You’re probably expecting something heavily battered and crispy-crunchy, but the truth is closer to lightly breaded and fried – all the better to serve as the stage for the real star of this show: a thick, neon-orange Aleppo-pepper aioli leavened with hazelnut. The spice level is more than enough – and leaves you searching for whatever else you can find on your plate to sop it up once the cauliflower’s gone.
From the Ground Up
The building that houses East Johnson Family Restaurant remains both a work in progress and a labor of serious love. Parts of the nondescript brick structure date all the way back to 1890 – and created more than a few unexpected obstacles on the road to modernization. “We thought construction was gonna be pretty easy, like just a demo to the floor and then start building,” laughs Kyle Johnson. “But we had to redo the entire front side. We think the only original things now are the two sidewalls in the main dining room. We were standing on a dirt floor for about eight months. ” They plan to add a mural on the outside, patio seating behind the building and a few sidewalk tables out front.
Find East Johnson Family Restaurant: 824 E. Johnson St., 608-285-5826, eastjohnsonfam.com
Aaron R. Conklin is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.
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