Thursday, August 19, 2010

The delis of Riverside Avondale

Yesterday, for lunch, I had a tabbouleh rider and a cherry limeade at a deli down the street.  Phil had a steak-in-a-sack.  If you live in Jacksonville, you know what I’m talking about.  But if you’ve never been to northeast Florida, you’re probably reading this with a blank stare.  What’s a “rider”?  Steak-in-a-sack?

In my research on Jacksonville’s cuisine, oftentimes the “rider” sandwich enters the conversation on what could be considered our city’s signature dish.  I’ll admit to being confused by the terminology when I moved here in December.  Until I learned that a “rider” is simply a sandwich where the fillings are stuffed into a pita pocket.  
Camel Rider at The Sheik
What does a “rider” have to do with a pita pocket sandwich, you ask?  I wondered the same.  A little investigative digging turned up some info.  Turns out the term derives from the infamous local “camel rider” sandwich.  Eek!  Camel rider?  Isn’t that an ethnic slur?  Nope.  According to this article and this article, the term was coined back in 1965 by Tarzan Akel, the Middle Eastern owner of Jacksonville’s The Sheik sandwich shops (other local establishments – ie, Goal Poast Sandwich Shop – claim they were the first to offer the camel rider, but I’ve only found documented evidence for The Sheik’s claim).  At The Sheik, a camel rider was – and still is – a pita pocket stuffed with ham, salami, bologna, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, onions, and dressing.  Today Jacksonville’s delis use the word “rider” to denote any sandwich made using a pita pocket.  So you’ll see veggie riders and tabbouleh riders and yes, camel riders served for lunch all over town.  And steak-in-a-sack?  Well, now you can figure that one out on your own.
The Sheik's steak-in-a-sack
I also learned that, surprisingly, Jacksonville has among the largest Arab Middle Eastern communities on the East Coast.  Many of our neighbors are immigrants and descendents of immigrants who began settling here at the end of the nineteenth century.  Some of the newcomers opened grocery stores, which turned into sandwich shops that sold pita sandwiches, which grew in popularity among the wider Jacksonville population.  As is the case with every American city, immigrants to Jacksonville played a visible role in shaping our food and our culture.  One of the easiest and best ways to witness their cultural influence, enduring ethnic identity, and level of assimilation is still in delis all over town.  Riders, stuff-in-a-sack, and tabbouleh are now markers of identity not just for the Arab community but also for Jacksonville as a whole.  Whatever our background, we all love these now-common locally-offered deli items.

I don’t want you to think that Jacksonville’s delis feel like ethnic restaurants in décor or overall menu offerings.  Really, if you didn’t know the immigration history of Jacksonville, you probably wouldn’t notice the Middle Eastern influence at all.  Our delis seamlessly blend one-time foreign ingredients with items of “mainstream” local character, like paintings of Jacksonville and elements of Jaguars pride.  Not to mention the standard sandwich offerings, ubiquitous vats of sweet tea, and cherry limeade stations at most of these delis.  This makes our delis very particularly Jacksonvillian institutions that form one of the most unique aspects of our local food culture.  I hope this tour of Riverside Avondale’s delis encourages you to pop in to one for lunch this week, or to make a visit if you’re ever passing through!

Riverside’s Whiteway Deli has one of the most Middle Eastern-influenced menus in the neighborhood, but there’s no mistaking that this eatery is 100% pure Jacksonville.  It’s been a bastion of local color since 1927, when the Ramallah-born father of current owner Sam Salem opened a café in Whiteway Corner (the deli recently moved to a newer, bigger, brighter spot on King Street).  The names of many sandwiches – most of which are made with pita pockets – are influenced by local politicians and other local icons.  Jacksonville pride is displayed in the form of some fine paintings of the Park and King district and other areas of our city.

Whiteway is essentially divided into two rooms: the room where you order and pay, and the room where you sit and eat.  The order/pay room is the first one you'll walk into.  The menu consists of a mishmash of loose papers posted up on the wall.  Whiteway gets creative with the names and fillings of their sandwiches (how about the Dr. Millan, chicken tenders, mozzarella, tabbouleh, onions, banana peppers, and ranch dressing in a low-carb wrap?).  There's a lot of hummus, tabouli, and feta floating around in the descriptions.  There are regular sandwiches, too, with all the usual cold cut options and a cubano thrown in for good measure, plus a few salad choices.  Side orders are available by the cup, pint, or 1/2 pint: potato, macaroni, and pasta salads, baked beans, coleslaw, tabbouleh.  You can see a lot of these dishes in a glass case and when I went there were house-made brownies and baklava lined up on top of the case.

So, you place your order and you can either pay then or wait until you're done eating.  Then you find a table and one of the nice ladies working behind the counter will bring your lunch to you.   When I went for lunch there was a good mix of people dining at Whiteway: families, groups of young girls, men eating alone with their noses in newspapers, business folks.  

I got the Late Bloomer’s Special: turkey, bacon, tabbouleh, avocado spread, banana peppers, and provolone in a toasted pita.  Such a unique combination.  It was fresh and really just downright delicious.  I added a few sprinkles of Louisiana hot sauce that was on the table to spice it up even more than the spice provided by the banana peppers.  The pita sandwich came with a crisp pickle.  

Don’t miss the archive of candid customer photos near the cash register.  If you look closely, you’ll see the “hidden” camera behind the counter.  Owner Sam can operate the camera remotely, with the push of a button – you’ll never even know he captured your image for posterity.  He’s essentially documented Whiteway’s customers for the past 30-some years, and the photos fill boxes and boxes (labeled by year) that you can browse through.  1237 King St, Jacksonville.  (904) 389-0355.
Whiteway Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Pinegrove is another uniquely Jacksonville market and deli located on Pinegrove Ave in Avondale.   This little place has a definite old-school feel, and the deli’s website claims it has been a neighborhood icon for over 60 years.  It's in a tiny building in an otherwise residential neighborhood, and both the exterior and interior are no-frills.  Who needs frills when you can get some of Jacksonville's best sandwiches, burgers, and fresh meat here?

Walk into Pinegrove and the counter where you place your order and pay is to the right.  In front of you is the deli counter with lots of different kinds of meats and cheeses and cold salads.  As far as fresh meats go, there were pork chops, chicken breasts, coiled sausages, ground beef, and steaks when I visited.  The entire wall along the left is taken up by fridges full of all sorts of beverages, including a case full of beer.  There are some bottles of wine lined up near the deli counter.  In the corner to your immediate left is the "market" part of Pinegrove.  You'll find a random assortment of pickles and spices and Spam and BBQ sauces and charcoal and other sundries here.

I had heard excellent things about Pinegrove’s burgers and cubanos.  So that’s what my friend and I ordered when we visited, and the guy working the counter said we made good choices.  I didn’t see many sandwiches stuffed into pitas or served with tabbouleh or other Middle Eastern-inspired ingredients on the regular menu, so I thought Pinegrove may fall outside this sphere of influence.  But after we placed our order I noticed a separate menu that was laminated and taped to the counter.  Here were the clues I was looking for!  This menu listed epic-sounding sandwiches like Da Fritz (grilled pita with pastrami, turkey, provolone, and tabbouleh) that aren't on the regular menu.  I haven’t had a chance to return for one of these but from the looks of the photo and description of Da Fritz over here on Whacksonville, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed. 

The burger and cubano were FOR SURE some of the best I've had in Jacksonville.  Dear me.  The cubano was chock full of meltingly tender pork that was clearly roasted in-house, along with ham, pickles, and mustard.  We got a half size sandwich and it was plenty for one hungry person.  

And the burger.  Wow.  What a burger.  Cooked to a perfect, juicy medium... moist and complex and thick... with real toppings like ripe tomatoes and aged cheddar and onions and pickles and leaf lettuce.  Is this the best burger in town?

I went to Pinegrove at 1:15 and three of the four tables were taken.  I bet this place can get pretty packed during prime time lunch hour so you might want to consider phoning in your order and taking it to go.  It's local gourmet without any stuffiness or pretention.  1511 Pinegrove Place, Jacksonville.  (904) 389-8655.
Pinegrove Deli on Urbanspoon

I’d driven and walked by Gina’s Deli in Five Points many, many times, thinking it didn’t look like much.  But then I visited for lunch and realized what a local treasure this place is.   

Gina’s has a way bigger interior than it appears from the street.  The eatery stretches back quite a bit and has ample seating.  It's just what a deli should be - simply decorated, no frills, casual.  Except, that is, for two very notable items of décor that display just how well Gina’s straddles the line between its Middle Eastern heritage and its pride in being located in Jacksonville.  On the wall behind the condiments station is an eighties-inspired spray-painted mural that reads, Gina's Welcomes Jaguar Fans.  There's an image of a vicious crouching jaguar poised in front of the Jax skyline.  When the friendly owner saw me taking a photo of the room and the mural she came over to my table and sat down next to me to talk to me about the deli, which has been in Riverside for fifteen years.  According to her, the mural was painted by a loyal customer and is a real favorite among customers.  This artwork is right behind the drinks station, so it frames the big vat of sweet tea and the cherry limeade assembly line… two other unmistakable indications that you’re in Northeast Florida.

The owner and her family hail from Palestine, and she proudly showed me the other notable item of décor in the deli: colorful and intricate hand-stitched tapestries hanging on the walls.  The owner herself made them and she said they are traditional in her home country.  

On to the food.  The menu is listed on a board above a display case bursting with fresh salads and Middle Eastern goodies.  The owner proudly proclaimed that she and her staff make every item from scratch every morning, and I really could taste the freshness in the items I tried.  I ordered a kibbeh and tabbouleh rider and a side of potato salad.  The tabbouleh and pita made this rider one of the best I've had so far in Jax.  The pita was thick, warm, and chewy and generously stuffed to the brim with hot kibbeh and fresh, lemony tabbouleh.  The tabbouleh was where the freshness of the meal really shined, with its grassy parsley, hearty bulgur, crunchy squares of cucumber, ripe tomato, and hint of mint.  

This was a big, heavy sandwich.  It was really unnecessary to order a side of potato salad, but I'm glad I did.  Gina's somehow managed to keep the salad really fresh-tasting and light while at the same time loading up on the creamy mayo.  

The prices at Gina's are extremely reasonable for the amount of food you get.  I ended up taking 3/4 of the potato salad home and ate it for lunch the next day.  The deli also serves breakfast - a sign in the front advertises their Breakfast Special - two eggs and bacon served with grits and toast for $3.99.  At these prices, you have no excuse if you don't go to Gina's, and often 818 Post Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 353-9903.
Gina's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Michael's Deli is another excellent lunch-only deli in Riverside.  The eatery mainly offers classic sandwiches made with Boar's Head products, plus salads and soups.  There are a few Middle Eastern options available, and you can choose to have your sandwich made on a number of different breads or have the fillings stuffed into a pita pocket.  

Phil got the steak-in-a-sack the last time we lunched here.  This was my first time eating something-in-a-sack, and it made me giggle when he ordered it.  But really, it was nothing to giggle about – it was delicious!  A pita pocket overflowing with substantial slices of juicy steak and sautéed onions with a good amount of mayo thrown in.  

I had the reuben on rye.  Not the best I've ever had - the bread was a bit soggy even though I would have liked more Russian dressing - but it was perfectly acceptable, and quite affordable.  We shared an order of fries.    

Even though the deli was crowded - we snagged the last available table when we arrived around 12:45 - our sandwiches and fries were made quickly and delivered to our table by a very friendly lady.  I liked the hustle and bustle about the place.  And just check out the awesome Jags paintings on the wall!

I'm guessing Michael's gets a lot of business from workers at the nearby hospital, but it's a bustling, quick option for anyone looking for lunchtime deli fare in an unmistakably Jacksonville setting.  1639 Barrs Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 384-3909.
Michael's Deli on Urbanspoon

Goal Post Sandwich Shop is a classic deli located in a plaza on Herschel Street in Avondale.  From the outside, it looks like this eatery has been around for a long time.  Indeed, it has.  According to the deli’s Facebook page, it’s been family-owned and -operated since 1979.

You’re greeted by someone the second you enter Goal Post.  I had heard that THE thing to order here is the tabbouleh rider.  And, wouldn’t you know it, as I was eyeing the Goal Post T-shirts I noticed that they proudly proclaim the eatery to be home of the tabbouleh rider.  So, yeah, I’m guessing it’s a popular menu item. 

The tabbouleh at Goal Post is tart and grassy, and they don’t skimp on it.  They toast the pita pocket with two kinds of cheese inside, so the cheese gets all melty and warm and the pita gets crisp.  They also throw some mayo in there for good measure. 

I’ll be back for another of these sandwiches.  I’ve also heard that Goal Post’s steak-in-a-sack is unique in that it uses cumin-spiced ground beef instead of the more traditional strips of steak.  Let me know if you’ve tried it!  3984 Herschel Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 384-9262. 
Goal Post Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Richard's is an old school deli hidden away on Oak Street just behind Riverside's Five Points 'hood.  I'd never known it existed until I was walking down Oak to find the back entrance to Underbelly... and there it was.  

I say Richard's is old school because it has a certain old timey charm with its green and white checked curtains, fake greenery hung on the walls, and framed articles from Jacksonville newspapers that date back almost twenty years.  Oh, and there is liverwurst and Waldorf salad on the menu!  The eatery is pretty big for a deli and has lots of tables so I didn't in any way feel rushed to get through my lunch.  There are magazine racks near the entrance where you can pick up the Folio or EU and take your time going through them as you munch on your sandwich.

It was a really hot day when I visited so I certainly didn't want anything too heavy or hot.  I got the tabbouleh rider.  The tabbouleh wasn’t as fresh as it is in some of the other delis I’ve tried, but the pita stood out as being thick and chewy and fresh.  I tried to ignore the slice of cheap American cheese in the rider… and I thought the prices were a little steep for the size of the sandwich.

You could also go for a regular deli sandwich or a chef salad.  Check out the white board near the cash register for daily specials on sandwiches, soups, and desserts.  This would be a great spot for lunch if you work in the area, especially because my sandwich was ready literally within thirty seconds after I paid.  You order and pay at the register and they'll have it ready for you by the time you get to the end of counter.

You won’t find friendlier folks working at any other deli in Jacksonville.  The lady at the register complimented me on my outfit the second I walked in and the rest of the ladies behind the counter were all smiles.  Richard's had a good flow of lunch clientele when I was there, and many of them seemed to be regulars.  There were different sorts of folks eating here - moms with sons, dads with daughters, business folks, blue collar guys, and a number of older folks eating alone.  As they walked in the door, customers were greeted with, "Find a parking space today?" and as they left, "See you tomorrow!"  1030 Oak Street, Jacksonville.  (904) 358-3120.
Richard's Sandwich Shoppe on Urbanspoon

Gibbs is a shiny, airy, light-filled, newish NY-style deli in Riverside.  It's a big space, with plenty of indoor seating and a really nice, clean, and well-maintained outdoor eating area complete with a bubbling fountain and umbrella-topped tables.  

In my option, NY-style delis shouldn't be this squeaky clean and bright and modern.  It didn't feel like NY at all.  It didn’t really feel like Jacksonville, either.  Gibb’s doesn’t sit well next to all the other Riverside Avondale delis that have loads of history and heaps of local color. 

I suppose I could ignore this lack of sense of place if the sandwiches were killer.  Erm.  When I went, I had the BLT special - 8" BLT, a fountain drink, and chips for $6 and change.  It was more than enough food for two people, so a really cheap lunch, but even if you're not in the mood to share it's still a good price.   It was an okay sandwich that reminded me a lot of Larry's Giant Subs, especially the bread (we got wheat).  Nothing bad, nothing good.  Shredded iceberg lettuce.  Meh.

Gibb’s uses Boar's Head meats and there are a ton of mayonnaise-based salads (tuna, chicken, egg).  Not many choices for vegetarians, except a garden salad, a Greek salad, and a veggie sub which is just made with the afterthought veggies that are thrown on all the meat-centric sandwiches.  No tabbouleh or hummus or other Middle Eastern items to be found.  Want my advice?  Head a block up Barrs and go to Michael’s instead.  They’re both delis that probably cater to hospital workers, but Michael’s feels more authentic and puts a lot more creativity into their sandwiches.  2545 Riverside Avenue, Jacksonville. (904) 527-8358. 
Gibbs N.Y. Style Subs and Salads on Urbanspoon

Johnny’s Deli is located on Riverside Ave between Five Points and downtown.  The deli provides lunch for the multitude of nearby office workers.  At 12:30 when I visited, the line was snaking through the dining area all the way to the door.  I thought we'd just arrived at a bad time, but the line continued to snake out the door the whole time we were there, so I guess lunch time is a busy time at Johnny's.  The line moved relatively quickly, though.  

Johnny's has pretty standard deli offerings, and you can request that the standard sandwiches to be stuffed into a pita.   You place your order with the guy making your food and you can watch everything he does - I like that.  The food prep area is very clean but I wasn't impressed by the quality of the ingredients.  They were pulling shredded lettuce out of a bag and once we got our sandwiches, we didn't think the bread was very good.  It was spongy and tasted kind of stale.  Fries were the crinkle frozen guys - not that big of a deal, I guess.  The chicken in my Greek chicken pita wrap was dry, and it was pretty unwieldy overall.  

My husband liked the Johnny's special sub with roast beef and melted provolone, but again, the bread didn't knock our socks off.  Sandwiches and subs and wraps come with a side of egg salad, pasta salad, potato salad, or chips.  A lot of people seemed to be ordering the egg salad, so perhaps it's a specialty here?  If you want fries or a salad, you'll pay a couple bucks extra.

Johnny's has some booths that seat four hefty-sized people, plus some smaller two-tops scattered about, but I definitely wouldn't want to sit at any of the tables in the middle of the deli cuz people waiting in line would be hovering around you and drooling over your food the whole time you ate.  We got lucky with a table by the window.  

Not sure I'll go back to Johnny's when there are so many other, tastier delis in Riverside.  474 Riverside Avenue, Jacksonville. (904) 356-8055.
Johnny's Deli & Grille on Urbanspoon

The Sheik – where it all started!  I didn’t try the camel rider at this fast food restaurant on Atlantic Blvd until after I’d eaten at all the delis in Riverside Avondale.  After all this research, I felt compelled to try the Camel Rider at its source!

Well, The Sheik has retained very few Middle Eastern influences – you’ve got the name of the joint, and you’ve got some sandwiches served in pita pockets.  And that’s that.  Like I said, it’s a fast food joint, complete with a drive-through.   Fast and cheap.  Burgers and subs and lots of options for breakfast.  My Camel Rider was okay (see photo at beginning of post).  Ham, salami, bologna, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, onions, and dressing shoved into a pita pocket.  This isn’t a sandwich made with high quality ingredients, so just know what to expect.  Cold, hard, flavorless tomato slices; bagged shredded lettuce; cheap cold cuts; government-issue cheese.

My husband got a Steak-in-a-Sack, his go-to Sheik dish (photo’s also up there).  I liked this sandwich WAY better than the Camel Rider.  The meat was cooked on a griddle with onions and the sandwich was served hot and steamy.  This is what I’d order if I ever return to The Sheik.  One of us ordered a combo so we could share a little paper package of fries.  Ask for seasoning and they’ll shake some seasoned salt over them.

Glad I finally tried this little slice of Jax, but the riders served at the delis of Riverside Avondale blow this place outta the water.  Thanks for dreaming up the “rider,” though, Mr. Akel!  Jacksonville thanks you!  9720 Atlantic Boulevard, Jacksonville. (904) 721-2660. 
Sheik on Urbanspoon


JaxFoodieFreak said...

I am impressed you ate at all those locations! Awesome review. It's funny, the very first lunch places I was introduced to by local lawyers and judges in town were most of the places you listed in your review. The Arab/Middle Eastern influence is prominent at these locations. Thanks for sharing!

Cari said...

Yeah, it's tough work eating at all these spots! :) I knew Whiteway was popular with lawyers and judges... funny to hear the other spots are, too! Thanks for reading:)

JaxFoodieFreak said...

Forgot to mention that Goal Post was my go to place for steak in a sack and burgers! Love that place, many Ortegans, Riverside/Avondale people frequent there. But I have to try Pinegrove Deli, too to compare.

Cari said...

I have to say that Pinegrove is one of my new favorite spots in the neighborhood - let me know if you agree!

aoi said...

As a new resident of Riverside, I just have to thank you for your reviews on the area! Can't wait to check out Pinegrove.

Cari said...

Glad to be of help, aoiwowie! There are some real gems in Riverside:) Let me know how you like Pinegrove!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE me some Whiteway and Pinegrove Market. I regularly get amazing breakfast sandwiches from both. At Whiteway, I am consistently surprised by how FAST the service is--and how good the rider is; at Pinegrove, I know I'm in for a leisurely wait, but it's always worth it. I'll definitely have to try the burgers there--but I can attest to the quality of the hand-cut steaks. Yum.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE me some Whiteway and Pinegrove Market. I regularly get amazing breakfast sandwiches from both. At Whiteway, I am consistently surprised by how FAST the service is--and how good the rider is; at Pinegrove, I know I'm in for a leisurely wait, but it's always worth it. I'll definitely have to try the burgers there--but I can attest to the quality of the hand-cut steaks. Yum.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the review of the area Deli's. The work recon crew now has a bucket list.

JaxFoodieFreak said...

LOVED Pine Grove!! Will be back very soon for a hot sub, perhaps breakfast, and whatever random dessert they have for the day. Soups are supposed to awesome as well. So little time, so much food to eat....

Unknown said...

Not just a GOOD meat market...but the meats are DRY aged and reasonably priced...and you don't have to cross the Buckman (to Whole Foods) to get them!!

Anonymous said...

good article; however, as a Jax resident of 30 years . .i must say the absolute *best* steak in a sac in town is at Stan's on beach blvd. period. he treats the steak a certain way . .which he will not reveal. . i've tried.. they claim they are the original burger king too ..

Etienne's Stories said...

As a regular customer at Richard's Sandwich shop for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that their Camel Rider is the best in town. Yes, I've tried Jacksonville's sandwich in other places, but keep coming back to Richard's