Fairfield County has some great bars with good old fashioned bar food…wings, burgers, fries, onion rings, cheesesteaks, with a wide variety of beers. Recently, many have expanded the menu to include tacos, chili, ribs, chicken and other down and dirty delicacies. When I received an invitation to join a media event at Johnny Utah’s in SoNo I was curious, since this bar also features a mechanical bull (spoiler…not happenin’).
The décor is college rathskeller meets Texas longhorn; long, wooden bars extending from front to back on both side walls, numerous high-top tables, tons of bar seating and “The Bull.” There are plaques of beers throughout, nine TVs on the walls airing sports, a large American flag comprised of beer cans, and on any given night the bar may sponsor a bull riding contest, line dancing or specials on some of the food. While we were eating, there were several groups that were having a blast. I felt transported back to my college days.
Johnny’s menu is pretty straight-forward, bar food that goes with beer. This was not haute-cuisine, farm to table, plates of well-constructed and balanced flavors and textures. This was down and dirty bar food. This was fried. This was sweet. This was sour. This was spicy. This was wings with a choice of more than a dozen sauces. This was a burger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches. This was 32-ounce, multi-person smokin’ rainbow colored drinks. This was foot high milkshakes covered in Reese’s bits or Oreo cookies, and for an additional $5…add a shot of booze. This was college bar food ready to down with pitchers of beer. And there is plenty of the latter, with a long line of taps on both bars, from Bud Lite to Fat Tire. I asked the bartender which was the best seller and she told me, “the late night crowd buys the Bud Lite and the Mermaid Pilsner.”
The menu includes fried appetizers, sliders, chili, four different salads, burgers, pulled pork and chicken sandwiches, ribs, fried chicken, fish and chips, and steak. Prices range from $6-11 for the apps, $9-$13 for the salads, teens for the sandwiches and entrees. I also asked the bartender which item sells the most and she said, “we sell a lot of burgers.”
We started with a few pick-up, lick your fingers appetizers; first the Philly Egg Rolls. The fried wonton wrappers were stuffed with shaved Philly steak, onions, and cheese, and served with Johnny's BBQ sauce. Memories of burnt tongues forced me to wait until the incendiary melted cheese cooled. There was more fried wonton than filling, which lacked any discernable flavor. They were served with a BBQ sauce, not sure my friends from Philly would approve.
This was followed by a plate of Pickle Chips with chipotle mayo. The slices of sour dills were coated and fried. This was a whole lot of sour, and for a little heat dip them in the accompanying chipotle mayo. Again, they may be an interesting mate to a cold beer but not to my liking.
A trio of wings arrived next and the chef sent the Guinness, the PB&J and the sriracha. I was happy to see both the drummette and the wingette parts of the wing. The wings were meaty, a good first sign, lightly coated and still moist inside. I decided to work my way up the spiciness ladder. First the PB&J. It may take a little getting used to but these were not bad. A bite of sweet and the nutty butter. Onto the Guinness. These were sorta non-descript. Wings should have character, these were neither sweet, nor spicy, nor tangy, not a big fan of this rendition. Then the Sriracha. They were the traditional Buffalo wings’ iridescent red. And the spiciness was there, good kick and with a little dip into the blue cheese sauce, I would order these again. One out of three ain’t bad.
A small bowl of chili arrived next. This contained both beef and beans, but was more liquid than meat and beans. It was first cloyingly sweet and then the spiciness kicked in. I was not a fan and would probably pass on this.
Johnny Utah’s touts itself as a rib and burger joint and the ribs arrived next. The chef immediately told the table they did not have a smoker. They start with full slabs of ribs, dry-coat and slow roast for a few hours, then finish in a covered roaster with sauce in the oven. The meat was fall off the bone tender, but the texture was almost spongy and there was little smoke and less BBQ flavor, it was more steamed meat than what I was hoping would be a down home slab of full-flavored pork. Another pass, but was served with some delicious cole slaw, which I really liked.
The special 10-ounce grass fed burger is served on a brioche bun for $5 and with numerous toppings, each guest can design their perfect combination. Since we could each order our own combination for the burger course, I asked for my normal bacon-cheeseburger medium-rare and added the sautéed onions. This combination, with fries, would raise the price to $12, still a very reasonable price. The first burger that arrived was missing the bacon, the server did a quick round-trip to the kitchen. When I cut it in half it was more well-done than my requested medium-rare so they offered to re-fire. The second burger was raw in the center. Not a good thing from a place that sells tons of burgers. I did taste around the edges and the meat was OK, medium flavor, with a good level of juiciness. The brioche bun was great, from neighboring Winfield Street deli, but the bacon was non-descript. These two main events were disappointing. On the positive side the fries were good and the thinly sliced onion rings were outstanding.
No trip to Johnny Utah’s is complete without an enormous milkshake. Ours was the Oreo. A foot-tall marshmallow dipped glass arrived filled with a vanilla milk shake and topped with whipped cream and more Oreos. It was a fun way to end the meal.
Overall, Johnny Utah’s is a fun place serving bar food. All of the dishes are designed to accompany numerous beers, laughter, a few unintended falls off the bucking bull and watching sports on TV. Go for the food? Not really. It is what it is...go for a fun time.
- Sriracha Wings (6 for $7.95 12 for $13.95 24 for $26.95
- Onion Rings
- Cole Slaw
- Oreo Milk Shake ($10)
- PB&J Wings
- Philly Egg Rolls ($10.95)
- Pickle Chips ($5.95)
- Guinness Wings
- Homemade Beef Chili ($5.95)
- BBQ Ribs (1/4 Rack $11.50 1/2 Rack $17.50 3/4 Rack $23.50 Full Rack $27.50)
- Burger ($12)
80 Washington St. Norwalk, CT
This was a media event. Neither CTbites nor the author were compensated for this review; the meal was provided without charge. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author.