"[Johnny Kolache] is like eating someone else's mother's cooking, which at first you think is weird, but then really good." Photo: Barrett Doran
900 South 248 West, Salt Lake City
Johnny Kolache is a little coffee shop-sized pastry joint serving Czechoslovakian pastries in a number of fine and tasty ways. The white walls of the joint are covered with the enthusiastic autographs and mementos of many happy customers, though at first glance, it isn’t discernable that these aren’t the scrawls of the condemned or mad. If you want to add your own detail, the counter help is glad to offer a Sharpie for your use. Johnny Kolache might be the most intentionally unpretentious place in Salt Lake, and yet everything about the eats and the friendly help says that there’s a lot of pride behind this family and their homestyle food.
The building itself has the twentieth century-style, hand-painted graphics that give the whole thing a Mayberry feeling. The section of town it serves is simply tough, and one suspects that is part of why it closes around three. It shares a tough street with other strenuously individual restaurants, bars and even a strip club. What could be more Eastern European?
I found myself writing here on a couple of occasions—the place is quiet, sunlit on sunny days, comfortable and the Wi-Fi is fast and free. Of course, I had a couple of meals while I sat. The food is cheap, delicious and positively homey. For me, it’s like hanging with some neighbors as a kid and eating someone else’s mother’s cooking, which, you at first think is weird, but then really good. The food here is the kind of stuff you tell your mother she should try to make, and when you do, she throws up her hands and reaches for the peanut butter instead.
The Belly Buster Breakfast ($5.95) is what their website calls a Kolandwich (TM) or kolache bun filled with three cheeses, eggs, sausage, ham and bacon, with your choice of jalapeno, pickle, catsup or mayo. The sandwich, with its soft, slightly doughy bun, is a white trash hookup complete with Hank Williams records, breakfast beer and wet kisses served in a disarmingly neat package. The sandwich itself looks like a little brown UFO, but once it’s in your mouth, it’s a rowdy damn party.
The Breakfast Sliders, ($2.79) are just like the Belly Buster but smaller—a hot taxi ride with a rowdy mo-fo though the streets of Laredo. Oh yeah. Try it on for size.
There is a variety of lunch-style Kolandwiches available that come with a side of chips and a drink ($6.95)—a steal by lunch price standards in this city. You can get pastrami, a cheeseburger, chicken salad, pulled pork, ham, roast beef, BLT or, for many SLUG readers, veggie style. A sandwich on a fresh-made kolache bun is something you just haven’t had before, and when you do, you’ll probably be coming back for more.
Another amazing white trash food specialty offered on the menu is the Frito Pie ($4.45). A lunch-sized bag of Frito’s corn chips is cut open on one side like it is being field dressed, and then filled with delicious chili con carne, cheese, onions and jalapenos. This gesture goes all in: You can’t be neutral to a chili-stuffed Frito Bag. You’re charmed, permanently harmed or simply disarmed. I sat slack-jawed and wondered why I hadn’t ever thought of doing it myself. It’s worth the trip just to bring one of these little novelties back to the office to see the reactions of your coworkers.
Their website suggests that a kolache is a Czech pastry made from a yeast-raised dough. Its soft, slightly sweet character is delightfully different from the crisp-crusted and stiff-bodied pastry we often encounter. The dough, traditionally filled with sweet poppyseed filling, found a second life when it came as an heirloom to Texas and Oklahoma. Here, the grandchildren of these old-world treats were packed with meats, cheeses, sweets and fruit. These are the point of pride for Johnny Kolache. These kolache are about three inches across and made from soft, buttery dough baked into a dome and filled with fruit compote or jams ($1.89), or with meats and cheese ($2.09). They form a humble two- or three-bite delight. I found myself eating a whole bag of them on a car ride home one afternoon. I don’t like sweets, but I liked these. The sweet barbecue-roasted pork kolache was particularly memorable, as was the Czech sausage variety, which I believe uses locally sourced custom sausage for a unique taste experience.
Seriously, Johnny Kolache is a special place and very outside the Salt Lake norm, as joints go. I can’t place exactly what it feels like. It’s from another time and a different place. When I first tried lunch here, I wondered if I hadn’t wandered into a hard-boiled television show’s coffee shop. It’s comfy, atmospheric in a sort of aggressive anti-way and decked out with good cheap food. I thought, “I’ll take some to go,” but the next time, I stayed and found myself very happy with the place. If you can’t make it here, they deliver, as you can find out from their very useful website. Salt Lake has some scary and interesting streets, and this is one of them. So go ahead, live a little on the wild side.