Sunday, November 18, 2012

Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon

Although I'm not currently in the market for a rental property, I've found a blog entry on Chicago's vintage restaurants that was posted on Domu's website (a local apartment finder service) a while back to be exceedingly helpful (you can see it for yourself here). For instance, I learned that Schaller's Pump in Bridgeport is the city's oldest continually operating tavern and subsequently added it to my list of venues to visit on greeter tours (as I also did for Margie's Candies and Swedish Bakery). While idly perusing the restaurant listing, I stumbled across one place that's not too far from the Commissary: Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon (15743 S. Crawford, Markham), formerly known as Willie's Wee Nee Wagon, serving up red hots since 1955. Although Mrs. Hackknife grew up in nearby Oak Forest, she'd never heard of Johnny's/Willie's, let alone visited, so I took it upon myself to drag Hackknifette there one Friday at lunchtime to check it out.

Less than a mile down 159th Street from my now-favorite local BBQ joint Exsenator's (but on the other side of I-57), Johnny's is situated on a hardscrabble plot of property among tire yards and auto body shops. The building itself is low-slung and tiny, dropped next to a large, unpaved lot that seems to be a preferred overnight parking spot for semi-trucks barreling down the adjacent interstate. Diners are first greeted by the hot dog statue pictured at the top, a whimsical fellow whom I've seen at a few other mom-and-pop fast food establishments.

Once inside, my little girl and I were confronted with a surprisingly-expansive menu, featuring (among other things) hot dogs, tamales, burgers, tacos, wraps, many different sandwiches, enough fried appetizers to put a bowling alley to shame, chili, shakes, and 60 flavors of soft-serve ice cream. In order to keep things simple, I stuck with the basic hot dogs, plain for Hackknifette and full-on Chicago style for yours truly. We also shared a bag of small fries while perching on a couple of the few barstools at the windows opposite the counter (see photo above). The dogs and fries were decent, but nothing I would deem destination-worthy. Better was the regular cheeseburger I ordered once I determined that the one hot dog hadn't adequately filled me up (more research, you know).

It's worth mentioning that Johnny's namesake owner (John Cappas) has a bit of a colorful past (to say the least). As a youth, he ran with a wild crowd and fell into drug dealing, eventually earning enough cash and notoriety to land himself a 45-year prison sentence. The stint in the big house apparently turned around the young man's life - he studied law, gained a 30-year reduction in his jail term, earned a culinary degree on the outside, and saved up enough dough (legitimately, this time) to buy the old hot dog stand and rename it as a testament to his now-cleaned up act (although he hasn't completely shunned his sordid past - at the restaurant, you can buy a copy of his memoir "Tall Money", featuring cover photos of his younger self embracing the gangster lifestyle a la Scarface, with a free hot dog thrown in for good measure). As far as I could tell, the stigma of old transgressions hasn't affected his business as a steady stream of customers came and went while we were there. Regardless of the backstory, if we ever return to Johnny's for more, I'd be anxious to try one of the house specialty dogs, such as the Pitbull (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo)...

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