Bronx Eats: Southern Comfort Has Seen Better Days at Johnson's BBQ
After Justin Verlander squashed the A's (allowing GM Billy Beane to maintain his record of never making it past the ALDS), I hopelessly dreamed that Caracas might lug their Rockaway digs up to the Stadium erecting a Bronx Arepas Bar in honor of their countryman and 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. However, apparently expunging a Red Sox off the top of another record list isn't enough to compel our downtown friends. Corn cakes be damned! Like the Mets making the playoffs, it was a pipe dream.
Thinking about where to take baseball fans next, I recalled a conversation between myself and Serious Eats BBQ sleuth James Boo, who once talked to me about the Oakland barbecue scene. The link was apparently tangible enough for me to justify writing about Johnson's BBQ, an old school southern joint in the South Bronx.
Regarding pipe dreams: apparently so was this column-within-a-column. The thrashing the Yankees received from the Tiger's pitching staff was one thing. The loss of Jeter—the permanent playoff fixture he is—is another.
But even if they aren't all that great, eating a load of cheap spare ribs in a place that looks liked it belongs in a sepia photograph is a decent way to start feeling better, right? As anyone could tell you, it's not like you're going to find Detroit-style pizza in the Bronx.
Located off a quiet corner of Tinton Avenue, Johnson's awning proudly reads "Since 1954," and they would have you believe that things are still, more or less, the same. Inside, there isn't a seat or table to be had. Once upon a time, there may have been a soda fountain; but no longer. Fordham's Dr. Mark Naison, a noted professor of African-American history, crowned Johnson's his "Number One Thing to do in the Bronx." I can't agree.
Ringing in at $13, your order of ribs, or any other meat, comes with two sides. But they aren't worth their weight. The options are predictable for a soul food joint, which is exactly what you want, but they're uninspired and bland: exactly what you fear. The mac and cheese tasted like underseasoned Kraft made without the absolutely necessary extra cheese, the collard greens approximately like nothing. The sides are more useful, truthfully, as a bed for the meat, than as a meal in and of themselves.
My co-diner, who was raised on her grandmother's cow feet and tripe soup, explained that she couldn't understand why other people in her neighborhood loved Johnson's so much. She described the oxtail as being served in a pool of black gravy, the fried chicken as taking on unnatural shapes. For my part, I was satisfied with the ribs. Smothered in mustard and barbecue sauce, they had a sweet flavor and were relatively moist. But I can't recommend that you go out of your way to get them, especially given the lack of seating. In spite of their efforts, the reality that times do change had shone through the stripped down, static aesthetic of the once beloved Johnson's. And perhaps there is some value in this, though it's unrelated to the pursuit of good food.
790 East 163rd Street, The Bronx, NY 10456 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. He firmly believes in the power of pork. Keep abreast of his latest finds and nonsequiturshere, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.