John’s Famous Stew is about surrendering to the Hoosier love of excess, and life’s most rustic pleasures, namely spicy beef stew on a bitter January Friday night after a rough week. Here on Kentucky Avenue, in the city’s industrial heart, you can live the John’s Stew story by pretending you were one of Mother Strangeff’s nine children back in 1890s Macedonia and she cooked you some life-saving stew in an iron kettle on a woodburning stove. John Zikes, the old woman’s nephew, ended up in Indy; the stew recipe emigrated with him.
Current owners Tommy Caito and Betty “Boobs” Kassing carry on the tradition, moving the restaurant from its 1950s South Street spot to Kentucky Avenue in 1976 and using the same Old Country recipe. Tommy and Betty do a mean lunch business, even in the hottest summer, drawing Lilly staff, the downtown crowd and GM workers.
On this night, the place is filling up with regulars, guys with camo ballcaps, Harley jackets and flannel shirts, smoking and swearing about their sick dogs and mean wives. Overheard: “You don’t have a wife, you’re married to him,” and “I can’t taste my beer, and Bud Light has no taste, so give me a Bud.”
In between serving fire water to the regulars, Faith — a no-nonsense, nine-year John’s waitress veteran — guides me through John’s ways with stew. It starts with a tomato base with a tangy Slavic flair, melted through with black angus beef, slow cooked till tender. Peasant-like veggies include cabbage, tomatoes, broad green beans, celery, carrot coins as big as frisbees and skin-on red potatoes that look like they were cut with a hacksaw. These ingredients taste like they’ve been together for a while. John’s stew is the taste of time.
You can get it in mild, medium and spicy (all $6.45). The spicy makes your nose run and warms your whole ribcage. It’s all served with three slices of Klosterman’s snow-white, super-yeasty bread and three pats of Land O’ Lakes butter. This plush bread is born for sopping stew. A very Hoosier thing to do.
But why stop with stew alone? You can get this stew ladled across a tenderloin, punctuating the stew with breaded crunch ($6.75). You can use the stew to dress an open-face hamburger, creating a holy shrine to beef itself ($5.45). Or you can douse a stuffed green pepper in stew ($6.75). Portions are luxurious. Doggie bags abound.
John’s sprawling menu includes appetizers of breaded mushrooms ($3.95); salads with cheese, bacon bits and tenderloin ($6.25); beef or turkey manhattan ($5.45); and homemade BBQ sandwiches ($4.95).
If you love protein, John’s Famous Stew is tantamount to a brothel for you. Mad cow disease, be damned. Vegetarians are safe with the butter bean and vegetable stew version.
Before heading back into the cold, under the clear black sky full of factory smoke, I asked Faith for a blackberry cobbler ($2.25). Whole stewed berries in a gelatinous sauce tucked between two layers of chewy pastry, poised to burn my tongue. I wasn’t convinced John lavished time on this cobbler like he did on his stew, but I scored one for the berry seeds stuck in my teeth and the rockabilly jukebox tune that played as I ate.
Historic, rustic and authentic, John’s Famous Stew is a beckoning chuck wagon for all true Hoosiers.