Johnny on the Spot

For months I'd watched that banner flap enticingly above the Alton Road storefront. Bold red script promised Johnny V's Kitchen would open soon, offering Killer Hoagies™ and vegetable wraps.

Frankly, it was the wrap part that caught my attention. It seemed about time. After all, am I the only person around here to have latched on to this wrap craze? Those multicolor tortillas rolled up with all manner of filling, from Thai chicken to teriyaki tofu, seem to be everywhere except Miami Beach. (On a recent trip to Minneapolis I spied a gaggle of downtown wrap shops.) It's not as if South Florida hasn't caught on. Coral Gables has a wrap place. So does the Grove. Ironically, Fort Lauderdale even boasts a popular spot named South Beach Wrap Cafe. But no wraps on South Beach.

For a while it looked as if one of the places I'd fallen for, Rosie's World Famous Wraps in the Grove, was expanding to Lincoln Road. A sign in a shop window between Meridian and Euclid avenues teased me for months before it mysteriously disappeared.

Then came the banner trumpeting Johnny V's Kitchen. Would this sign also turn out to be an empty promise? I asked around and discovered that a grand opening was definitely scheduled for mid-June, and that the force behind the place was none other than Johnny Vinczencz, a.k.a. "the Caribbean Cowboy," chef-proprietor at Astor Place, where a mango- or wasabi-encrusted entree runs somewhere around 25 bucks. I'm as happy as anyone to pay such a price for Vinczencz's excellent and innovative food, but I confess I wasn't quite sure what to expect of a wrap and sandwich joint run by the guy.

One recent Sunday, in need of refreshment after a morning of intense garage sale-ing with my neighbor, I noticed a couple walking into the little red, white, and blue Alton Road storefront I'd been eyeing for so long. It had opened! And there was even a parking spot out front, which we immediately seized. We walked in, found a table along the wall, and hoisted ourselves onto shiny red vinyl and chrome bar stools. From our uncomfortable perches, we examined the neatly arranged rows of wine and beer bottles on the glass shelves behind a sleek, marble-topped counter. On another shelf are Johnny's own pickles and exotic condiments, such as sweet habanero pickles and papaya applesauce, which are made on the premises. The jar- and bottle-stocked shelves are meant to evoke a country store, but the mirrored and white-tiled walls decorated only with stark black-and-white photographs create an almost sterile ambiance.

With fewer than 30 seats along two counters and five or six bar-style tables for two or four, the place doesn't lend itself to segregating smokers. Despite the breeze provided by swiveling ceiling fans, even a lone smoker can stink up the room. The narrow space is not conducive to large groups, nor does it invite leisurely meals.

Rather, the pace is quick, pushed along by a young and personable staff. A pony-tailed waiter made his way to our table with photocopied menus (one page, with dishes listed on both sides), returning within moments to take our drink orders. The beverage selection includes fresh-squeezed orange and vegetable juices, melon punch, iced teas, sodas, beers, and wines, but no hard liquor. Johnny V's offers more than a dozen wines by the glass, and I chose an Italian pinot grigio. I also asked for some water. My friend opted for mango iced tea. The wine and tea arrived just as we had begun to cool down from the oppressive heat outside. But no water.

While scanning the menu, I noticed that wraps were clearly not featured. But my heretofore dieting friend pointed out some great comfort-food dishes, announcing, "I'm sorry. I can't be good today." With hoagie choices such as St. Louis barbecued and chopped rib meat, a fully loaded Reuben, and pot roast with gravy, who could blame him? He settled on the garlic-pepper roast beef Killer Hoagie™ with barbecue potato chips, and he also ordered a side of cole slaw and a basket of fries. I, on the other hand, was still looking forward to one of those exotic wraps. Unfortunately, after scouring the back and front of the menu, I located only one. It was described as a "politically correct" spiked and grilled vegetable wrap with a chipotle vinaigrette. Given all the other interesting options, I quickly got over my wrap infatuation. For example, the very first listing under "house specialties" -- fresh tuna salad with basil-roasted-garlic mayo, onions, peppers, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce -- intrigued me.

"Are there a lot of greens with the tuna salad?" I asked our distracted waiter.

"No," he replied, going on to explain that it's a hoagie garnished with greens.

"Hmm. I really feel like a salad," I said.
"Try the red curry tuna served on a bed of mixed lettuces," he suggested.
"Sounds good. Could you also bring that water?"

We sipped our drinks and anticipated a great meal. In just a few minutes we were staring at a basket of steaming brown fries and a bowl of mango-studded cole slaw. We flagged down our waiter to ask for ketchup and some silverware. After delivering menus to a table of pierced and tattooed new arrivals and then chatting with one of the waitresses behind the counter, he produced a small plastic cup of Katie's Kickn' Catsup.™ Though paler and runnier than the standard bottled version, this spicy concoction smacked of fresh summer tomatoes with a dose of sugar and a hint of hot pepper.

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