On one of the coldest days in Dallas, the diner in Oak Cliff feels too warm to be real.
Chicken-fried steak, big as the sun and shimmering with pepper gravy, steams visibly; it’s ready to go in the kitchen window like a pie in the windowsill of an old cartoon. Jonathon’s Oak Cliff is a gingerbread-sized diner. It’s filling up quickly at lunchtime, and each time the front door swings open, the wind cuts inside like icy glass.
When a fried chicken sandwich arrives with two fried eggs above the crust, you’ll know it’s not smoke and mirrors. Jonathon’s is not a superficial diner where chef tricks or wild food writer hyperbole are the only saving graces. It’s a diner where labor and love show up between slices of grilled bread.
Chef Jonathon and co-owner Christine Erdeljac’s baby — their little diner that could — opened in May of 2011. The Erdeljacs married within a year of meeting each other at Mondo’s Restaurant, the now-closed restaurant that used to live off of the Tollway in North Dallas, where Christine tended bar and Jonathon cooked. Jonathon has been working in restaurants since he was 15. One night, as a busboy at a Houston spot, he was asked to be the dishwasher, and "he never left the kitchen," he says. He worked his way up, Christine climbing with him, to run the show at Breadwinners locations on Lovers Lane and in Uptown.
Still, the ultimate goal was always to find a space to run together. Late in 2010, the economy was shaky, and banks stiff-armed the Erdeljacs at every turn. Arms and legs were on the table for collateralizing. When they found the North Beckley Avenue spot, it felt like a scene from Goldilocks.
“To be honest, we used all of the jewelry that Christine had and I had, and we used it to collateralize the loan,” Jonathon says.
The kitchen was a thumbnail version of what chef Erdeljac was used to, so he built out a simple, tried-and-true menu: chicken and waffles covered in gravy; giant, loaded breakfast plates; a club sandwich and a cheeseburger.
“I’ve always been one of those people philosophically that was like, 'You’re better off doing simple things really good than really complicated things half-assed,'" Jonathon says.
Nearly eight years later, a line’s building at the frigid front door. The Erdeljacs got it done: They painted the walls themselves, sweat into the floorboards during a foundation repair and opened a spinoff spot down the street. Christine and Jonathon aren’t interested in having children.
“We always joke that we have 43 kids— the waiters, the line cooks, the prep cooks, the cats,” Jonathon says.
“I’m a small operation. I don’t have deep pockets to pay people. I don’t have a kitchen manager,” he says. “I’m competing with guys in Plano that are paying $14 an hour to be dishwashing.”
The Which Came First Sandwich arrives, burning off the fog of the icy weather. Jonathon is still brining his chicken like he used to — with buttermilk and Tabasco, pepper razoring through the brine to punch things up — and he drops the tenderized chicken breast in flour seasoned with chili powder, paprika, garlic and onion powders, salt and pepper.
Once the chicken is deep-fried to a fashionable crisp, it sits on heavily buttered, grilled bread — the sourdough is charred on both sides — along with fresh shredded lettuce, tomato slices and two fried eggs. It’s a masterful, steam-hot and juicy sandwich that tastes like nothing more than the sum of its parts.
“A good sandwich only has four or five things in it, anyway. You start putting more stuff in it, then you lose what it is,” Jonathon says.
When frill-free food is presented without cutting corners, alarm bells go off inside. They signal that you’re eating honest, good food.
Jonathon’s tiny kitchen dictates simple food, but the execution is bold and big. The chicken-fried steak is big enough to create shadows. The peppered gravy is the only thing to eclipse the sharp breading. The Which Came First Sandwich has two eggs divided neatly into each half of the sandwich, and the bread is toasted on each of the four sides.
“For me to not put the effort into it, it would be bullshit," Jonathon says. "I’m not going to cash it in on a chicken-fried steak.”
It’s a sentiment he delivers with a touch of fire.
Jonathon's Oak Cliff, 1111 N. Beckley Ave.; Jonathon's Diner, 1619 N. Beckley Ave.