Johnny’s Restaurant brings the best of Mississippi to the heart of Alabama
Published 3:47 pm Monday, January 22, 2018
An excerpt from “From Mississippi With Love,” an article published in the December 2016 issue of Oxford Magazine
BY JULIA SAYERS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELSEY FREEMAN JUSTICE
When you walk into Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, the Mississippi influence isn’t immediately obvious. But look closer and it becomes more recognizable.
The walls include groupings of Mississippi posters from the Old Try, mixed in with others from Alabama. Fighting Okra and Hotty Toddy pennants hang above framed magazine accolades.
An examination of the menu shows Fried Catfish, Red Beans and Rice, and Comeback Sauce. This meat-and-three restaurant, a style common throughout both Alabama and Mississippi, is anything but ordinary, though.
Johnny’s has a distinct Greek influence from owner Timothy Hontzas background. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Hontzas was introduced to food at a young age in his grandfather’s kitchen (who owned the original Johnny’s in Jackson).
“I’ve always wanted to cook, I always have cooked,” Hontzas says. “I’m Greek—I don’t think I have a choice in the matter.”
Hontzas, who graduated from Ole Miss, had a long path to Birmingham, which included a cumulative 16 years working with John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, and stints in Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia, and South Carolina before settling in Birmingham and opening Johnny’s four years ago.
He wanted his restaurant to reflect the food of his heritage, but with a “facelift,” as he likes to say.
“There’s a very strong Greek influence, and not for it to be a trite subject for me but we do southern ingredients with Greek influence,” says the self-taught chef. “Everything is sourced out locally. The reason we have chalkboards instead of paper menus is because the farmer dictates the menu. Clearly there is a correlation between Alabama and Mississippi chefs in that type of food. What I’ve brought being raised in a Greek and Southern household was a mixture of both, and that’s exactly what I do at the restaurant.”
The menu changes daily, but staples like Souvlaki with lemon tahini butter and Keftedes (Greek meatballs) stay on the menu. Other things like pastitsio, spanakopita, and Greek cheesecake rotate on and off.
“This isn’t what the yayas would make,” Hontzas says. “Say, if we make a gyro here, I’m going to make the pita bread; I’ll do 15-hour braised lamb shoulder. We culture our own yogurt for our tzatziki.”
Even some Mississippi staples have Greek influence. Comeback sauce, which Hontzas makes in house, originated as a salad dressing at a Greek restaurant in Jackson. “The Greeks invented everything, didn’t you know that?” says Hontzas with a serious expression.
Hontzas believes the strongest Mississippi influence comes in the form of New Orleans cuisine, though.
“I think you see it on the underlying side,” Hontzas says. “It’s not a huge billboard that says ‘I do Creole and Cajun food’ but I think you see that influence on a lot of Mississippi chefs because of the close proximity of New Orleans. Unbeknownst to me, a lot of that makes it onto my menu.”
Hontzas’ time with John Currence in Oxford had a strong influence on his own style.
“Look what John brought to Mississippi—fine dining that had a major New Orleans influence because that’s where he cut his teeth, where he was brought up, and what he knew,” Hontzas says. “We see that on our menu here and I think, more than any other way, that’s how Mississippi chefs are influenced.”
Mississippi chefs like John Currence and Vish Bhatt have made a name for themselves on the state’s culinary scene, and paved the way for others to come through and start a culinary revolution throughout the state. Hontzas cites Russell Smith in Corinth, Mississippi as a chef who’s brought fine food to the small town. Other chefs and restaurants in Jackson, such as Walker’s and Saltine, are grabbing national attention.
“I think similar to Birmingham, you’re seeing some revitalization in Jackson,” Hontzas explains. “Because of John [Currence] and Vish [Bhatt] and Derek Emerson in Jackson, I think chefs are seeing it as an opportunity. I don’t know if they’re being drawn to one place specifically, but they’re being drawn to that field and seeing ‘I don’t have to go four states away to be successful and to find those great chefs.’ I think they’re starting to gravitate there because of the revitalization and go ‘This is the field I want to go into and I might be able to work with these chefs.’”
Hontzas does note that he has seen many chefs moving to Oxford specifically, because of the growing food scene, similar to what’s happening in Birmingham.
“I think there’s a strong correlation between Oxford and Birmingham,” Hontzas says. “They’ve got Currence, Bhatt, and now Kelly English has a place there. You have three strong players there, big time, and here you have Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings, Chris Newsome, and Brian Somershield who are all doing great things.”
For Hontzas though, his strongest influence will always be from his papou’s kitchen. But combined with his love for his home state, time spent in Oxford, and dedication to fresh local ingredients, this meat-and-three feels like home for any Southerner.
Julia Sayers is the editor in chief of Birmingham Magazine.