Summer of 2019: We have been swept up in the cowboy craze. We've added "mount a mechanical bull at Johnny Utah's" to our top country-inspired things to do in New York City. We suggest that you throw back a shot in this subterrean saloon and then—for free—climb atop the ornery Buck and ride until you can't no more.
2010: Restaurant review of Johnny Utah’s
Photo: Beth Levendis
Not everyone’s got a grandma looking out for them. Apparently, nobody told the Johnny Utah’s crew that a mechanical bull was a good idea sometime around 1980, the year Urban Cowboy came out. No matter. A quarter century later, there it is, the centerpiece of the industrial-meets-Western dining room, handily disposing of a parade of cowpokes game enough to sign the waiver acknowledging the risk of “permanent paralysis and death” so they can ride the beast.
When in Rome: I took my turn, hung in for a good 30 seconds, then got violently thrown, which also describes my dining experience. The food combines barbecue, Mexican, Tex-Mex and any other cuisine that could possibly justify a cowboy hat (which still doesn’t explain the name, derived from Keanu Reeves’s character in the surfing movie Point Break).
Johnny Utah’s fails miserably at all of them. There’s a stack of hickory wood, but it seems more for prop than proper use. Chef Marlon Manty spent some time at Blue Smoke, but there’s zero evidence of ’cue chops here. The ashen meat splintered off the bland, dry pork ribs. I couldn’t stomach a second bite of the mealy beef brisket without first drenching it in barbecue sauce. Two pieces of corn bread, perversely carrying a $5 surcharge, were as cold and hard as plastic.
Judging from the meal’s pace, each dish receives all the love of a McDonald’s burger. One meal saw the appetizers arrive within three minutes and the entrées, ten minutes after that; desserts, like a cloying banana pudding crowned with crispy vanilla wafers were, again, delivered almost instantaneously— keeping pace with my disdain. When a food critic finds himself pining for the days of Justin Timberlake’s barbecue, you know the rodeo’s over.