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Published: Thursday, 8/30/2007

Restaurant review: Johnny's Lunch *

Between now and the next five years, the owners of Johnny's Lunch, a new hot dog joint in the Franklin Park area of West Toledo, hope to cover the earth with their signature chili sauce.

The original restaurant, opened by the late Johnny Colera in Jamestown, N.Y., in 1936, is still in business, turning out inexpensive "Texas hots" as well as burgers, fries, and milkshakes to the latest generation of customers.

Johnny's grandsons, John and Anthony Calamunci, have bold plans to spread the brand far beyond New York state. Toledo is the first outpost, almost certainly as a result of Anthony Calamunci's relationship to the city, where he practices law and is president of the franchise end of the business.

The owners are building the chain on the reputation of the original Johnny's Lunch, with Toledo and two Michigan outlets representing the initial foray. According to various Internet articles, the objective is to blanket America with as many as 2,500 to 3,000 units over the next few years: 100 to 250 in Ohio and Michigan, 50 in the New York-Pennsylvania area, 800 in North and South Carolina, Atlanta, southern California, and so on.

Based on several meals we tried at the local eatery since it opened May 21, I'd say the starry-eyed proprietors will need fortitude and perhaps even divine intervention to come anywhere near their goal.

The Calamuncis call their signature sauce "famous" and "world-class," describing it as "a Greek-originated Coney sauce with an Italian flavor" and a "tangy but not spicy taste."

Tangy it is, but I would beg to disagree with the "world-class" designation. In a city replete with authentic Greek Coney Islands and other ethnic chili dogs, Johnny's sauce comes off as taste-free goop - a pureed, probably tomato-based sludge that overruns not just the hot dogs but the burgers and fries.

The hot dogs I grew up on have been perfected by generations of kitchen auteurs: good-sized wieners and sauce loaded with crumbly ground meat and seasonings that fill steamed buns. In contrast, Johnny's hots - so-called "Texas hots" that are popular in the east and have nothing to do with Texas - are comparative runts, with onions, mustard, and smallish wieners covered in the pureed glop.

One thing to be said about the food is that it's reasonably priced. The hot dog that sold for 10 cents in Johnny Colera's Depression-era storefront now costs just 97 cents - $2.94 if you buy them as "threebees," which the restaurant promotes. Burgers, which also contain the chili sauce, are $1.39 each with cheese or $3.57 for three. Fries and rings ($1.89) can be ordered plain or topped with cheese and more of the sauce ($2.49).

The physical setting is typical of fast-food places, with red and white booths and tables and a wall mural of news clippings and menus over the years, dominated by a moustachioed illustration of the founder. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter. When the food is ready, the cook or server calls out your name. The plates are paper and the utensils are plastic.

Fish and chicken sandwiches, advertised on a specials board for $2.94 each, were preformed but good-tasting, as were the thick, hand-dipped milkshakes ($2.69), which come in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry flavors. The 85-cent "famous rice pudding" with a sprinkle of cinnamon was uninteresting but thankfully safe from the dreaded sauce.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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