Northwest Indianapolis has Trader’s Point, a glorified mall, and Northeast Indianapolis has Fishers, where the WASPS commute after their office jobs. Southeast Indy has Fountain Square, which in the last 5 years has earned its “cultural district” label many times over. But if you travel just five minutes from downtown toward the airport, you’ll bump into Southwest Indianapolis where the Hoosiers live. This is where truck drivers go for mechanical work and body parts, where animals picked up by the pound are sent, and where John’s Famous Stew serves hungry working people it’s namesake nosh.
I admit that I always draw a blank when asked for restaurant recommendations on the west and southwest side, but I’m working to fix that. So when foodie friends Nick and Alice recommended John’s Famous to me, I hustled right on down for a hearty lunch.
I don’t know where you’re from, but I’m unquestionably from blue-collar Indiana, and this place instantly felt like home to me. Located on Kentucky Ave just down the block from transmission places and across the street from a building that advertises “professional wrestling every Tuesday,” John’s looks like your average factory town tavern. On the Thursday lunchtime I visited, the dining room’s 30 or so tables were more than half full of lunch-breaking mechanics, retired-looking gentlemen, and businesspeople in their business attire.
The menu has a pretty standard burger, pork tenderloin, chili and crackers type offerings, and of course, the Famous Hearty Stew. We had obviously decided to have stew, but this turned out to be a complex decision, as there are mild, medium, and hot versions of the stew, as well as “goulash” versions which are apparently the same stew plus butter beans and other mixed veggies. Between you and me, the mixed vegetables looked suspiciously like a frozen corn, peas, and carrots blend, which isn’t my favorite, so I nixed that option. You can also order the stew over potatoes, just the stew broth ladled over various things, and other amalgamations of the classic.
We opted for the medium hot stew, plus a cup of chili and a grilled cheese sandwich. The stew was served in a wide plate with a thick slice of white bread. We had one chunk of chuck roast, about 3 inches on a side, surrounded by gooey, spice-laden gravy. There were potatos, carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables so cloaked in gravy they were unidentifiable. Eating this stew was like being hugged by all your grandparents all at once. As a culinary object, it was gloppy, unrefined, and odd. On a cold winter day, tired of gluten-free wraps and quinoa salads and pickled watermelon and maybe, just maybe, missing your childhood a little bit? This is the stuff.
The chili was fine but nothing to write home about. The grilled cheese was predictable perfection and served with a dill spear and chips (which I’m sure you can guess I find highly imperative). The server was completely delightful: south-of-the-circle accent, chatty, and friendly-the kind of person who can call you “darlin” without you wanting to hit them.
Overall, this is the kind of place you come to feel like the simple old days aren’t quite gone. It’s the kind of place you want to be a regular at, to have the bartender know your name and pour you a Budweiser and complain about the weather with you. The stew is good, and you should go and try the stew, but if you’re like me it won’t be the only reason you come back.