- Mike Sula
- The Big Grabowki, Johnny Casserole
The last time I saw Johnny Casserole, aka David Bryson, he was standing on my front porch bearing an oven-ready Pyrex dish containing a marvelous chicken potpie. Accessing the voice-over actor and culinary school grad’s hotdish delivery service required some planning, but enjoying it required almost no effort short of popping your jambalaya, shepherd’s pie, or tuna noodle casserole into a hot oven and impatiently tapping your toe. Now the option exists to make it a morning, day, or night out in his North Center brick-and-mortar spot, appropriately dubbed “Chicago’s first coffee and casserole cafe.”
If it seems unconventional to partake of something so inherently domestic (or potluck friendly) in a restaurant setting, be warned that Bryson still requires advance notice to cook your casserole. He doesn’t freeze and store them, so unless you call ahead, you’ll be waiting 45 minutes to an hour—it’s slow food at its unrarefied ideal. The nice thing is that, while only a portion of his menu is available on any given day, it offers the chance to try individual servings of the casseroles, my personal favorite being the shepherd’s pie, aka “the Great Plainsman,” with grass-fed ground beef and cremini mushrooms blanketed in smooth mashed Yukon Gold. The vegetable lasagna’s really nice too, with thin strips of zucchini mirroring the sheets of pasta and the concentrated of power of sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers brightening it up.
Pasta in the casserole crucible can be a dodgy thing, but in each instance Bryson’s achieves the rare feat of sauce absorption without becoming either mushy or dry and overcooked. This is borne out with the fettuccine in the tuna noodle, a bland dish by nature, here given some welcome acidity with the addition of artichoke hearts; or the egg noodle and kielbasa Big Grabowski, which achieves a similar balance with sauerkraut. Even something as mundane as mac and cheese, here made with springy cavatappi and cheddar sauce, is highly customizable, with a pizzeria-like selection of flavor-boosting add-ins.
He’s added salads too: a Caesar, a spinach, and a house kale and celery leaf, as well as a lineup of breakfast casseroles, five sandwiches, coffee from Big Shoulders, and a full espresso bar.
And Johnny will still deliver to your door if you want to enjoy your chicken potpie in the security of your own safe room. But this time he’ll bring it hot.
- Mike Sula
- For Your Thighs Only, Johnny Casserole
Johnny Casserole, 4019 N. Damen, 773-857-2665