Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.
The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’ fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day. The restaurant’s consistency is another.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to stay consistent in what we do; that’s so important to me,” he says. “I’ve been writing recipes since 1993 and designing them and tweaking them and changing them, and there’s no reason for us not to be consistent. I’m proud of the work ethic of my staff and for them buying into me. They work really hard.”
The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.
The menu above the cash registers showcases Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special: This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.
The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”
Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.
“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”
To Hontzas, though, local is about more than location. It’s about knowing the actual provenance of your food.
“I can tell you where everything came from,” he says. “I can tell you where the molasses came from that’s in our barbecue sauce; it’s from Scottsboro, Alabama. … I can tell you that the eggs come from Gillsville, Georgia. I can tell you where the fish comes from: Bayou La Batre, Bon Secour, Apalachicola. That’s what I want to give to our customers – for them to know what they’re eating.”
Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous, who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous (the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry. He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolous family made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.
And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating: spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh.
“We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.”
Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves grown in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.
And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, and while apprenticing with classically trained chefs like Erling Jensen, Chris Nason and Rick Kangas.
Sometimes Hontzas’s food traditions and cooking skills come together in an unusual, yet still delicious, way. The roasted tomato soup on the menu is made from the tomato-rich braising liquid left over from the fasolakia (Greek-style green beans). “My Papou’s brother died of starvation in World War II,” Hontzas says. “We don’t throw anything away.” The leftover sauce from the green beans is a beautiful product on its own, so he toasts coriander, caramelizes some garlic and onions and adds a touch of cream to create a soup.
For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.
“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition: number one for putting up with me, but number two for being there alongside me. I always thought that I’m just going to work harder and I don’t need anybody and I’ll be able to do this, but that’s not true. I need those … gentlemen and ladies back there to help me. I need their support and I feel sometimes, well, they need my direction and I hope that they’re learning from that direction.
“But I was truly honored and flattered. For us to be a meat-and-three, you know, those accolades and nominations are usually reserved for white-tablecloth, fine-dining restaurants. We’re starting to see some other people come out with a story to tell … I just want to keep – to quote Jason Isbell – ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’ Just keep pushing to be better.”
As for the coveted Beard award, he says: “It’s about us but not about us. It’s for y’all. It’s for the customers. I tell everybody, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about the food, and it’s about y’all’s experience.’ … (Awards) drive business and they’re great, but it’s almost like I’m proud to be nominated for our clientele, if that makes sense. I want it for the city. I want it for the customers. I want it for the staff. I want it for all of us.”
These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra – written on the wall for all to see – was Hontzas’ Papou’s mantra, too: “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”
“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture, because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. The two cultures are very similar.
“Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.
2902 18th St. S., Suite 200
Homewood, AL 35209
Lunch Hours: Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)