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McCOOL JUNCTION — Lisa Johnson thought hand-breaded onion rings would go over well at Kerry’s Restaurant & Catering in McCool Junction.

The kitchen staff, she said, was wary. They weren’t sure they had enough space in the kitchen to prepare the rings.

Johnson said to give it a go and see what happens.

“Today, it’s our top food for the fryers,” she said.

And for good reason. The sweet onions boast a light, tasty breading, making them some of the best I’ve enjoyed anywhere. So when my server asked what potato I wanted to accompany my walleye order, I nixed the potato and went for the onion rings.

My wife did, too, ordering the rings as the side to her BLT. We weren’t disappointed.

Kerry’s celebrated its 15th anniversary on March 1. Husband and wife Kerry and Lisa Johnson took over what used to be the town’s Dairy Queen just days after Lisa gave birth to their fifth child. Lisa was a social worker, but Kerry, now 51, had been working in restaurants since he was 15, beginning at Chances R in nearby York.

“It’s been a journey and an investment,” Lisa said. “We couldn’t have done it without the community. This is a great community. It really is.”

Just over a year after the purchase, they rebuilt/renovated and did so again nearly four years ago. Today, Kerry’s, at 119 N. First Ave., is a two-story structure with three distinct dining areas and a 200-patron capacity. In March, the couple purchased Smitty’s, the convenience store next door.

“It’s really evolved from what it has been,” said Lisa, who added their operation was built on faith. “Our strength is because of him.”

Kerry’s has become a destination — and not just for the onion rings. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and has become known for its weekend buffets — BBQ (Friday, $15.99), prime rib (Saturday, $19.99) and breakfast/lunch/brunch (Sunday, $9.50/$14.50/$16.50).

The restaurant also has a stellar grill menu, which we took advantage of during our Sunday night visit. It’s a mix of burgers, sandwiches and dinner entrees such as ribeye ($14.99, 10 ounces), chicken fried steak ($12.99) and pork chops ($11.99, grilled; $12.99 breaded). You have to love small-town prices.

The walleye ($22.49) comes either grilled or deep-fried. I ordered mine deep fried. It featured a similar light, tasty breading as the onion rings. Entrees come with choice of potato or veggie and trip to the salad bar, which included lettuce and potato salads, coleslaw, sliced beets, chocolate pudding, soup and more.

Other menu highlights include:

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* a Bison Burger ($9.99).

* the Ever so Famous Gabby ($9.99) — an open-faced burger on grilled sourdough, topped with mushrooms, gravy and cheddar cheese sauce.

* and the Junction steak ($17.99) — 10 ounces, bacon-wrapped.

We enjoyed excellent service. The servers are from the area and often are neighbors/relatives/friends of the patrons. That, of course, helps give Kerry’s that small-town feel (and appeal).

“I start scouting kids in the second grade,” Lisa said, with a laugh. She was only half kidding. Kerry’s employs several area youth, giving them financial incentives to stay through high school graduation.

Lisa said she and Kerry, who is the primary cook, have more plans to grow Kerry’s, including, possibly, starting a farmer’s market. They recently began wine tastings at the convenience store.

“God willing, we’d like to do this another 15 or 20 years,” she said. “We’ve been incredibly blessed."

Jeff Korbelik is tasting room manager at James Arthur Vineyards. He’s written restaurant reviews for the Lincoln Journal Star since 1998.

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