So you've got to be a little skeptical when a restaurant declares itself "Famous,"
and yet is nestled between plants and factories on the near Southwest side. If you blink too long when you're near it, you'll drive right past. There's nothing "Famous" about this old school Macedonian stew joint (which I just said like it's "a thing," but it isn't).
But as I sat with my lunch companion admiring the glossy menus that had been carefully White Out-ed to reflect higher and higher food costs, it occurred to me that this place is
famous — just not in the way my Millenial brain is trained to comprehend it.
My generation doesn't have neighborhood joints. We Uber to the little hives of hype that exist around town, but few of us are lucky enough to grow up with the concept of a watering hole so familiar that it resides in the same part of our brains that "remember" Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. John's Famous Stew has ascended to that much-coveted place in every customer's mind: it's a permanent fixture.
And their food reflects fixture status in all of its glory. Our friend and contributor Jolene Ketzenberger might do well taking her search for the perfect pork tenderloin here. I ordered it out of the same curiosity that drives you to drunkenly buy tickets to Rent or Wicked when they come through town again: you just want to see how they
do it, and because you want to sing along to familiar tunes.
Their pork tenderloin satisfies all the qualifications to make it a real-deal, no-bullshit Indiana tenderloin. That bad boy is pounded out to schnitzel thickness and given a generous, peppery, crunchy breading and fry. We cut it in half and used the stew bread to make 2 whole sandwiches out of the "one" that was placed on the table. Every bite crunched in my back molars. It came dressed simply with lettuce, tomato and onion. It was amazing. It was pure Indiana.
But it didn't hold a candle to how good the extra spicy stew was. For just a split second, I felt like I was at my Macedonian grandparents' farmhouse on a cold winter day. Their famous stew is obviously a labor of old-world love: thick and hearty from cooking down mirepoix and bones and cartilage into a rich stock. It has the intensity and complexity of flavor that you just don't get from anything but cooking a lot of ingredients together for a long time. Big chunks of braised beef shred easily in your mouth but not in the bowl. You could, and probably will if you go, spend a solid ten minutes mopping up ever last drop of that heavenly broth from the bowl. It's stew for chopping down trees in the cold and working long hours on a line.
And as a cherry on top, we got some of the best service in the city from a woman who wanted to make sure that we were having a good meal, not because she was ensuring a good tip, but probably because we reminded her of some of her grandkids and she wanted us to have a good time. She fussed over our bread and drinks and chatted with us about where to get good seafood that's really good but won't break the bank, among other restaurant recommendations. (Caplinger's Fresh Catch, no question. Stop what you're doing and go there now, seafood lovers.) Part of the draw of these neighborhood joints is being treated like a neighbor, and we were.
We were also surprised to find that they had a fully-stocked bar, which seemed like a tempting way to spend a happy hour. The whole place was filled with everyone from construction workers to white collar Joes in their signature pleated khakis. The restaurant is painted to resemble a horse racing track's clubhouse, complete with Secretariat mural on one wall. Seems a fitting tribute to the ethos of the decor: pick a horse and go with it til the end.
John's Famous Stew is the epitome of the glory of the neighborhood place: make something good, serve it inexpensively and with care, and people will always come. I can say without reservation that I'll be back many, many times in the future.
Usually, to find crappy food, you need only look for self-congratulatory signage of some kind. Nothing better encapsulates this experience than when Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf takes his ladylove to get the neon-sign-declared "World's Best Cup of Coffee." She sips, shrugs, and declares it a "crappy cup of coffee."