By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Nov 05, 2010 at 5:12 AM

Don't judge a book by its cover or a restaurant by its name.

John's Sandwich Shop sounds like a plain jane place to get ham hoagies and grilled cheese on white. Drive past the nondescript storefront on the west end of a 1950s-era strip mall at 8913 W. North Ave., and you will see no hint that something special is going on there. You would be surprised.

Cravings for an egg salad, tuna salad and yes, grilled cheese sandwich can be accommodated, but those old standards pale in comparison with the rest of the menu. How about an asparagus-sunflower salad, with asparagus, sunflower seeds and hard boiled egg slices served over spinach with an apple cider viniagrette? Or a basil-shrimp quesadilla, with sauteed shrimp, diced tomatoes, red onion and basil stuffed between a couple of parmesan crusted tortillas?

Hamburgers can be ordered with the traditional fixings, but you can also get a burger with melted brie or fresh basil, sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella. John's also serves wraps, and its signature item is a turkey sandwich with fresh spinach and cranberry salsa on honey oat bran toast. These are just some of the lunch and dinner offerings.

Recent breakfast specials included pumpkin pecan pancakes and raspberry fritter french toast. And then there are seasonal lunch and dinner sides that include turnips, rutabaga, figs and edamame. What is happening here?

"This is how we maintain our edge, how we differentiate ourselves from the (George) Webbs and the Dennys," Peter Hyndiuk says. He and his wife, Kris, bought the 50-seat restaurant, which includes a counter, from John Canter in 1991. The founder opened the eatery in 1963 in a space that was once occupied by a Heinemann's.

The Hyndiuks, who both work the grill and test their recipes at home, seriously broadened the menu. Before buying John's, Peter Hyndiuk was a banquet manager at a number of Milwaukee's major hotels, including the Hyatt and the former Wyndham. Kris has a degree in psychology and was working at the former Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital before becoming a restaurateur.

The couple has four children, and that has affected John's menu. For example, a banana walnut waffle is made with a wheat and barley mix made from scratch.

"As we had a family, we thought we should be eating healthier, and we have brought that to our restaurant," Kris says. John's has been a part of the Wauwatosa Health Department's Healthy Options in Tosa (HOT) initiative. The program seeks to educate diners about nutrition and offer healthier menu choices.

Kris not only speaks of being involved in the farm to table and sustainable food movements. She and her husband walk the walk.

The Hyndiuks own a very small coffee finca (farm) in Costa Rica, and the family goes to the Central American country in late December and early January to harvest the beans. They bring their crop to Milwaukee in small quantities and have it roasted for sale by the bag and in the cup at the restaurant.

John's is a paradoxical mix of a casual neighborhood small business -- credit cards are not accepted -- and sophisticated worldliness. The restaurant used pink peppercorns in its recipes during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

While conceding that declining to take credit cards costs them business, Kris says she and her husband decided to accept only cash to keep menu prices low. John's attracts families seeking a modestly-priced restaurant outing. Its regular lunch-dinner menu tops out at $10.95 for one of its salads and two of the quesadilla entrees.

Maximum capacity doubles when the Hyndiuks place tables and chairs outside in the summer. In search of a permanent space increase, they are planning to push through a wall and expand into a portion of an adjoining storefront.

John's opens at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m. on Sunday. It closes at 8 p.m. every day except Friday (9 p.m.) and Sunday (4 p.m.). The later closing on Friday accommodates a fish fry and fish taco crowd.

Breakfast is available any time. "It's amazing how many breakfasts we serve at night," Kris says.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.