Restaurant Review: Johnny Oak's Po Boy & Shrimp Shack
The following string of stirring words - "I hope that's not too much meat on your sandwich" - was music to my ears, a virtual impossibility, and what I heard as I greedily grabbed a biceps-stressing bag of monster-sized masterpieces at Johnny Oak's. Johnny wasn't in that day, but that was OK because his pinch-hitter was banging out homers, too. You see, at Johnny Oak's, they build 'em so I come.
Johnny's sandwich lineup is frequently in flux, but since around Christmastime, it has regularly featured a power hitter not offered when I first wrote about Johnny Oak's last fall. And that's the reason for this report - but first a few words on this eccentric operation.
Johnny Oak's is a mere closet of a place just north of the OSU campus, and going there is sort of like visiting the tiny lunch shop that time forgot. Inside, a single worker leans over a small counter with a little griddle, and there, in a very meticulous fashion, very sloppy sandwiches - amazingly satisfying sandwiches - are turned out. But in case you're short on time, be forewarned that anyone without about a half-hour to spare should definitely phone ahead.
If you do have some moments to shoot the breeze, this teeny joint can be quite the conversation piece (on my last trip, there was an open Nietzsche book; an "outsider" artistic mural rendering of Johnny on the beach; a wacky, garlanded loveseat; and a glass table stabilized by a lounging mermaid base). Now if Johnny is in, the stories (like about living in New Orleans) will be pouring out like so much Cajun seasoning.
Speaking of Cajun seasoning, Johnny calls his special spice mix the "attitude," and he gives it a good shake onto most everything he makes, including his bodacious Blackened Beef Brisket sandwich ($5 half/$9.75 whole). That incomparable munch is the Christmastime present I previously alluded to.
Its foundation comes from a huge hunk of beef that Oak smokes for eight to 10 hours just outside his shop. The brisket bears a deep, dark crust that packs a potent black-peppercorn punch. For each sandwich, the beef, which shows off a telltale red ring as proof of long smoking, gets thickly sliced and (about a pound of it) layered on one of Johnny's crusty, baguette-y buns. Prior to this, the roll gets a good session of griddling to stiffen it for the onslaught to come.
Once in place, the meat mound gets ladled with a "chili monee" sauce (herby, soupy sauteed tomatoes and onions), which adds grace notes and some appreciated moisture to this full-throated sandwich.