Here’s Johnny!

Burgers, Shakes and Fries at Johnny Rockets, Open Now at Pearl Highlands.


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Johnny Rockets, the 1950s-era American diner chain with a menu full of burgers and sides, is now open at the Pearl Highlands Center.
Photos: James Charisma

 

Hawai‘i’s food scene is exploding in all directions these days, from new haute luxury restaurants to the latest local-farm-sourced eateries to food trucks and pop-up events. But nothing is a better indicator of a healthy city’s blossoming dining culture than the appearance of a new fast-food franchise. Five Guys Burgers and Fries arrived in Mililani a few months ago, Sonic is on its way and even bigger chains including Applebee’s—fast-food fine dining, if you will—are showing up soon, too.

 

Johnny Rockets, a burger-and-milkshake joint inspired by 1950s-era American diners, is among the latest in this new wave of arrivals, having opened its first-ever Hawai‘i location at the Pearl Highlands Center earlier this month. The place was packed when a few friends and I went on a recent Thursday night. Come between lunch and dinnertime, the friendly server behind the counter recommended. Or just before closing; it’s open late, until 10 p.m. most evenings.

 

I ordered a medley of items and the shakes arrived first, one chocolate ($5.69) and the other Oreo ($5.99), both hand-spun, with real vanilla ice cream and topped with whipped cream. They were creamy and thick, with big cookie crumbles in the Oreo shake. Shakes seem a big part of the Johnny Rockets advertised experience, offered here for a slight upcharge from the price of a soda when ordering a combo meal, in the same way a server might suggest onion rings instead of fries.

 

Ordering onion rings instead of fries is a good call, by the way: They’re divine. Johnny Rockets’ onion rings are the best I’ve had in a long time, maybe ever. The batter is crunchy without being greasy and the onions aren’t reduced to soggy strings in the fried casings. They’re great.

 

Skip the fries and order the onion rings.

 

The french fries, meanwhile, are instantly forgettable. They have no real flavor; it’s like somebody just sliced up a plain baked potato. A real missed opportunity here.

 

The burgers are decent, with the exception of The Original ($6.79), which comes with no cheese (even though there’s cheese in the photo of it on the menu). Instead, there’s an abundance of chopped onions, pickle slices and a mound of relish. The Spicy Houston ($7.99 for a single) tastes meaty and is sufficiently spicy, with slices of jalapeños and pepper jack cheese that provide a good amount of heat, which pairs well with the Smokin’ Chipotle Ranch sauce.

 

The Route 66 ($7.99) is also solid, with plenty of Swiss cheese and grilled mushrooms that a server tells me is portobello. I believe her; they don’t taste like the usual fast-food canned mushrooms (which are really the pits).

 

There’s often some kind of “Western”-inspired burger on fast-food menus and Johnny Rockets is no exception, but its Smoke House (single, $8.99) is great, with big slices of bacon, plus more of those heavenly onion rings right there in the burger. The beef is juicy with “special barbecue sauce” but it’s not lathered on, and the sauce is surprisingly subtle, not just a tangy vinegar and ketchup mixture.

 

Want a burger? Opt for one of Johnny Rockets’ specialty burgers. The Spicy Houston with slices of jalapeños and pepper jack cheese is a good option.

 

Nine times out of 10, chicken sandwiches are dry, but the grilled chicken breast sandwich ($7.79) was succulent and juicier than I expected. Served on whole wheat bread (and pepper jack cheese that I added on), the entire thing ended up tasting like a semi-gourmet club sandwich, sort of.

 

I didn’t try the veggie burger ($6.99) because the patty isn’t a house-made, hand-formed creation, it was just a soy Boca Burger. If you’re into that stuff, you know what it tastes like. And I was too scared to try the teriyaki burger ($7.59), served with a slice of pineapple as thick as the hamburger patty.

 

All in all, Johnny Rockets’ burgers weren’t bad. But they weren’t outstanding either. The problem is that the patties are bland. Kua ‘Aina offers delicious beef. Teddy’s overcrowds its menu with a million different toppings and sauces to mix and match, but the hamburger meat there is still great. McDonald’s patties aren’t substantial, which is why the Big Mac comes with two of ’em. But the Johnny Rockets burger itself is unmemorable.

 

When we think of the classic American diner, we imagine the neon lighting and the white tile and the milkshakes—but we don’t really think of the food. Johnny Rockets has resurrected that 1950s-era experience well, but hasn’t found a way to breathe new life into the burgers. If you go, order a milkshake and fries. And the onion rings. Definitely the onion rings.

 

Johnny Rockets, 1000 Kamehameha Highway, #226, Pearl City, 367-1748

 

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