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 Hoagiesª 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 Hoagieª 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.ª 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.

Still waiting for silverware and water, we stared longingly at the cole slaw. The waiter stopped by with my friend's roast beef hoagie. He mentioned that all the forks in the place were being washed. We waited some more.

Finally, our waiter presented me with a plump and mayonnaise-y sandwich surrounded with chips. "No, I ordered the salad," I reminded him. With a shrug and a mumbled apology he trotted back to the open kitchen. I continued devouring my friend's crisp fries. As thick as bubble-gum cigars and seasoned with cumin, pepper, and just the right amount of salt, they were irresistible. We finished off the tangy ketchup and waited for silverware. I caught the waiter's eye. He held up a finger, indicating just a minute. But first he returned with my salad, a large mound of baby greens crowned with a tuna fillet the size of a bread plate. Still no fork.

Instead of causing a fuss, I lunged into my indulgent companion's Killer Hoagie.ª What's with the trademark sign, anyway? Is Johnny going national? With sandwiches this good, he should consider it. Slender ribbons of beef doused with vinegar, oil, red onion, basil, garlic, mayonnaise, hot peppers, and pickles seemed to melt between the golden, cornmeal-crusted roll that's baked at Johnny V's and used for all of its hoagies.

Finally, forks! But along with my first bite of tuna I also swallowed a puff of cigarette smoke that appeared as suddenly as a midafternoon Miami sun shower. I confess that as an ex-smoker I actually enjoy an occasional waft of secondhand smoke. Not when I'm eating, though. But even with the layer of smoke and a dusty-tasting wasabi-based dressing, the salad was good. The thin fillet of tuna was exceptional. One bite into the curry-tinged crust revealed a ruby center as moist and fresh as the finest sushi-grade fish.

A visit just a few days later with an acquaintance who had just moved here from Mississippi was a much better experience. Even though the place was jammed (mostly with buff boys from the gym across the street), the service was efficient and overwhelmingly friendly. The only thing to mar our late lunch was Jimi Hendrix blaring so loudly from the ceiling-mounted speakers that we had to shout and hunch across the table to communicate.

We concentrated on the food instead. Ordered at the suggestion of our bubbly waitress, a side of yuca "tots" failed to impress. "Sorry they took so long," she said as she placed them on our table. "They threw the first batch out because they didn't come out right." Neither did the second. More like yesterday's latke than tots, these brown, coconut-milk-soaked pancakes were limp and greasy.

For a main course I decided to try a dish I had seen on the menu at Astor Place: a corn-crusted snapper taco (the prototypical wrap). The boring, dry flour tortilla was saved by its filling: Slender spears of slightly crunchy baby asparagus and a snappy tomato salsa made an elegant contrast to the buttery slices of avocado and tender, quick-fried fish nuggets.

Even better was my friend's chipotle-spiked vegetable wrap -- one of the few vegetarian options on the menu, as well as the reason for all my anticipation about Johnny V's. Though there was no evidence of the trendy pepper, the wrap was delicious. The same undistinguished flour tortilla was loaded with a hearty selection of vegetables, including roasted asparagus, squash, mushrooms, and peppers, then doused with a mild tomato salsa.

The portobello mushroom "Philly cheese steak," the menu's other vegetarian-friendly selection, turned out to be a sleeper. Usually wary of dishes I can easily put together at home, I took a pass on this fancified mushroom hoagie on my first visit. My mistake. It is luscious. A warm, plump, soft roll is stuffed with tender, lightly charred slabs of balsamic-vinegar-marinated mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and melted provolone; it comes accompanied (as do all the sandwiches) by a handful of fresh, mildly smoky barbecue potato chips. Even steak fans might be fooled by the beefy, complex flavor of this sandwich, which has become one of my cravings. (I ordered it for a takeout lunch twice the following week.)

Die-hard meat-lovers, on the other hand, will enjoy Johnny V's decadent Cuban sandwich. Thick hunks of lemon- and cumin-laced roast pork and succulent honey-cured ham were dressed with paper-thin slivers of sour pickles, sharp mustard, and musky Swiss cheese. Unlike the ubiquitous sandwich served at cafeterias throughout the city, this version has hardly a trace of superfluous fat.

Desserts -- dulce de leche chocolate cake, lemon pound cake, double macadamia nut brownies, banana layer cake, and a variety of cookies and pies -- are made daily by pastry chef Rick Griggs, who fills the same post at Astor Place. They all look enticing, but with the exception of a breadlike banana cake with a cream-cheesy frosting, the desserts I sampled were overly sweet and heavy, notably a cloying, coconut-covered jelly roll.

It's always risky to pass judgment on a brand-new restaurant, but even in its first weeks Johnny V's stands out. It may not be a wrap restaurant, as I'd hoped, but I think that trend may soon pass anyway. Regardless, this ambitious newcomer is welcome on South Beach, which is bloated with overpriced, attitude-laden tourist traps. Here imaginative food, reasonable prices, large portions, and friendly (if not always flawless) service have already won the hearts of many locals. But the uncomfortable chairs, intermittently loud music, and occasional crowds make it less inviting than other neighborhood haunts. If it's popular now, just imagine what's going to happen when the movie multiplex opens next door. Wisely, Johnny V's plans to start delivering soon.

Postscript: Wouldn't you know it. Just as this review was going to press, wraps did make the cut at Johnny V's: A newly tweaked menu allows patrons to convert any Killer Hoagie into a wrap. The expanded menu also features entrees such as "Miami Thanksgiving," with roast turkey, giblet gravy, and mango-cranberry chutney.

Unfortunately, the bargain prices have increased as much as 20 to 30 percent for some dishes. I thought it was too good to be true. Look for other changes as well; the menu warns, "We reserve the right to change anything at any time for no apparent reason but guarantee it to taste good or your money will be cheerfully refunded ... really."

Johnny V's Kitchen
1671 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-534-3433. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Roast beef hoagie
Corn-crusted snapper soft taco
Grilled vegetable wrap
Cuban sandwich
Portobello "Philly cheese steak"
Banana layer cake


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