It was my lucky day in Indianapolis. I arrived at John’s Famous Stew mid-afternoon, when Pauline, who has been a waitress in this dark, adults-only tavern for a few score years, had some time to chat. She clued me in to the difference between stew and goulash (the latter has more vegetables) and warned in no uncertain terms that I did NOT want the hottest of the three degrees of stew available.
When I committed the faux pas of asking exactly how heat level is adjusted, Pauline responded sharply, “I can’t tell you that!” She did confide that the recipe goes back to the original John, who long since passed away, and is known only to cooks who can be trusted with it. The famous stew is hearty enough to be forkworthy, hugely meaty, and — as I had it — just a whisper hot. Pauline noted that some people have theirs as a kind of uber gravy, ladled atop a fried pork tenderloin or a stuffed pepper.
When Pauline told me her name, she noted that it almost rhymed with Paula Dean, the TV chef. “I can outcook her any day,” Pauline declared, noting that she is from the Smoky Mountains, where people really know how to cook. She is especially peeved with the TV show because she believes that Paula makes her recipes look too easy when, in fact, she has assistants to do the grunt work that any home cook would have to do.
A little-discussed feature of Indy cuisine is the frequency with which stew is encountered on local menus. This homely dish is found in taverns and sandwich shops often enough for one to assume the local folks have a particular fondness for the stuff. One great place to sample it is at John’s Famous Stew, in the working-class section of Indy west of the river.
John’s stews come in mild, medium, and hot, as do many of the stews around town. His stews are said to be made from a 19th-century recipe from the founders’ Macedonian mother but, to our taste, other than the heat, they seemed like good ol’ beef stew, a brimming bowl filled with huge clods of beef and large chunks of vegetables. We especially enjoyed the hot version, which will not scorch the mouth of any but the most chili-sensitive. On the side come slices of white bread.
All sorts of stew variations and exotica are made as well. A Hot Minced Pit adds hot peppers and butter beans to a bowl of hot stew. Stuffed Pepper Stew will get you a beef and rice-filled pepper at the bottom of your bowl before the stew is ladled over. Ask for a Tenderloin Supreme and you get the stew of your choice over a hand-breaded pork tenderloin (those tenderloins look very promising).
John’s is a friendly tavern where you can down a mug or two of beer with your stew. All-in-all, a nice taste of old-time Indy.