If a restaurant serves up authentic Creole cuisine in Memphis, excellent. If it instead serves a big plate of chips groaning under a magic mix of wet, fiery chicken and white cheese sauce, topped with fresh jalapeno peppers, tomatoes and onions, well, OK by me.
Johnny G's Creole Cuisine is reminiscent of the food of New Orleans, no doubt. But it's more Cajun in nature than Creole, and frankly, it's more of its own thing than it is a defined cuisine, anyway. "Beale Street Eats" seems a reasonable moniker; like Miss Polly's Soul City Café, Blues City Café, Rum Boogie and so on, they're mostly a gumbo of Southern home cooking, Cajun staples, and barbecue, and most of it is pretty good to mighty fine.
Johnny G's is the latest in the lineup, and it ramps up the hybrid Cajun/Southern food.
The catfish is excellent. The po' boy comes with an enormous fillet of flaky clean, white fish surrounded by a thin and crisp cornmeal crust and topped with a simple squiggle of tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato. The bread is soft French bread, New Orleans style. You also can order the catfish as a meal, and there are half a dozen or more other po' boys.
The spicy fried crawfish salad was lackluster, but really, you can't expect much of crawfish outside crawfish season (étouffée being the exception). And with temperatures around 100 degrees, I decided to pass on the oysters. But it's the rice bowls -- Big Bowl Entrees, they're called on the menu -- that are both delicious and a bargain.
The shrimp Creole differs texturally from any version I've tried. The vegetables -- okra, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers -- are coarsely diced and cooked enough to make a stew, but not so much they lose their shape. The flavor is closer to the slightly spicy, more soupy tomato version you likely know, just beefed up with the bountiful vegetables.
The gumbo is deep brown, the result of a roux that must look like melted chocolate when done. It's intense and earthy, thick with onion, bell pepper, chicken and andouille. The crawfish étouffée is on the thick side, made from a medium roux and rich with butter. The only disappointment in the bowls was the jambalaya, which couldn't seem to decide if it wanted to be brown or red. (The difference is tomatoes, which both color and flavor most jambalaya in New Orleans but which are typically not added to jambalaya in Cajun country. Those, the brown ones, get their color from deeply caramelized onions, bell pepper and celery, and tend to be drier than the red.)
My preference is for the brown jambalaya, but either is OK; this mostly brown version with a bit of tomato wasn't for me.
Not that it will matter much, anyway, as the voodoo chicken will be where I turn when I visit Johnny G's. (And come on, how can you stay away from a place with the slogan "Who's Ya' Crawdaddy"?)
The voodoo chicken is slow-cooked in a spicy dark red sauce full of tomato, garlic, cayenne and Cajun spice until it's fork tender. The sauce thickens as it cooks, which makes a great topper for the rice and an even better one for those nachos I mentioned at the beginning of this review.
This dish is bar food at its basic finest. I don't mean elevated gastropub food or tapas, but good, old-fashioned beer grub.
Crisp corn chips are topped with that white cheese sauce like you find in every Tex-Mex joint in the country, then loaded down with the voodoo chicken, extra sauce, and fresh tomatoes, onion and jalapeno slices on top of that.
It'll bring back your youth. This is college food and it begs for a cold beer.
There's nothing fancy about Johnny G's, but it's comfortable, the food is good and filling (and cheap). An impressive collection of hot sauces line one wall, there's cold beer on tap or by the bottle, and the folks are friendly. After all, it's Beale Street.
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5229
Johnny G's Creole Kitchen
Address: 156 Beale St.
Telephone: (901) 528-1055.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. daily until whenever, at least until midnight and into the wee hours on busy nights.
Reviewer's choices: Voodoo nachos ($6.95); catfish po' boy ($9.25 with potato salad and slaw); shrimp Creole ($3.95 or $6.95); gumbo ($3.95 or $6.95); voodoo chicken bowl ($3.95 or $6.95, and the drunken chicken, a milder version that is also nice, is the same price).
Alcohol: Beer and liquor.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars