For those unfamiliar with restaurant vernacular, the term "touching tables" refers to an employee checking in with customers. Usually, it's a waiter returning at the right moments to gauge needs, but sometimes an owner or chef showing face and soliciting feedback.
Wise business practice says that ample table-touching is critical to success, and few if any people I've observed do it better than Johnny Nolan, the man behind SouthSide Johnny's and now Johnny's Navajo Hogan.
During two recent visits to the Hogan, I watched Nolan not only chat up the entirety of two spacious dining rooms on multiple rounds, but also greet and seat and work with his staff. It takes an energetic guy like that to pull together four partners (including Concept Restaurants' Dave Lux) and the $400,000 that was required to structurally overhaul the now brightened and beautified historic building — in short, to make a SouthSide-style go of a north end risk. And he's done well enough already that the group's looking to purchase acreage off the strip for more parking; as it stands, good luck finding a spot on a weekend night.
The big screens and local cover bands scream "SouthSide," but the Hogan's respectable draft list (including market newbie Firestone Walker and local rarity Batch 19) and menu, largely focused on pizzas and broasted chicken, distinguish it from its more sandwich-y sister.
That chicken, which we sampled as a three-piece (breast, thigh and wing) mixed plate with two sides ($9.95), is the menu's unequivocal star and bestseller. You can visit broaster.com for all the propaganda, but your mouth will confirm the juicy, awesome result of the less greasy, pressure-cooked chicken style. In brining it for at least half a day, then adding a nice breading, the Hogan has it nailed, much more so than its fried corn on the cob, which was unpleasantly mushy. The baked beans were fine.
For pizza, we went for the brave, beer-pairing-mandatory I Told You So (14 inches, $14), where chili replaces tomato sauce, and is joined by hotdog slivers, onions and a Pollock-esque drizzle of yellow mustard. It's at once abhorrent, freakish and, well, pretty creatively fantastic, taken as the gutbomb it is. The chili's oil overwhelms the otherwise-great homemade crust (chef Matt Gevedon counts a few of his 24 years' experience at Borriello Brothers), but if it's a dog you dig, this is a pie you'll love.
The Navajo Hogan burger ($8.95 with one side) is inoffensive but unremarkable, with a Thousand Island-like special sauce and pretzel roll bun, while the classic Caprese salad ($8.95) is standard, too. The house PBR and gouda beer cheese soup ($1.50 upcharge as a side), however, is excellent.
So close to Trivelli's famous Philly steaks, it's silly the Hogan serves one at all, and the chicken Philly ($7.95) missteps with dryness. The homemade cheesecake ($4.95) also falters with a heavy cream-cheese edge and a grossly syrupy strawberry sauce, surprising considering the delight of the also homemade vanilla chocolate chip cannoli ($5.95).
Taken as bar food — where, past the hotdog pizza, a marshmallow fluff dip for sweet potato fries ($2.95) shows a playful hand — the Hogan's fare largely succeeds.
And the chicken, like Nolan's customer service, has the legacy potential of the building itself.