Murphy Beds (pt. 1)

A perfect pairing.  Drafts at Gainesville’s beer hideaway Alcove followed by a meal at what some call the best restaurant in Gainesville, Paramount Grill.

Alcove

Alcove opens at 5pm on weekdays.  I came in on a Monday as Evan, owner and bartender, was pulling the string of the neon “OPEN “sign.  He unlocked the door, greeted me with a handshake, yawned and flipped on the recast of the day’s Premiership game.

Evan is young and organized, his style and attention to detail put forth in the clean feng shui of Alcove.  He rides a snappy, customized single-speed bicycle to work every day.  Calm and accessible, he appears to have a chill gig, but maybe that is because I am the only customer at the moment and am not too needy.

A local entrepreneur, Evan is, wisely, a local enthusiast.  Today the music in Alcove is powered by a laptop logged into upstart Gainesville music website Grooveshark, and on tap is the Midnight Oil Oatmeal Stout from Gainesville’s new darling, Swamp Head Brewery.  Grooveshark and Swamp Head are gems of nouveau Gainesville, each started by hungry and dedicated ex-UF students who liked the town and its demographics well enough to stay here and grow their ventures.

Grooveshark is an online music search site offering streaming music and the ability to create customized playlists of your favorite tunes.  You can also follow the playlists of users of similar tastes and pick off the best tracks from their collection to expand your own.  Let’s say you go to a party and want to take the helm as MP3J.  Login to your Grooveshark account and your playlists come up like saved bookmarks.  Grooveshark competes for ears with other sites such as Last.FM and Pandora.  Founded in 2006 by three University of Florida undergraduates, the company now employs around 40 people.  That’s big for Gainesville.  Well done Grooveshark.

Luke Kemper founded Gainesville’s Swamp Head Brewery in 2008 after earning a graduate degree in business from UF.  Swamp Head’s beers–a balanced gamut of an IPA, Belgian Wheat, Oatmeal Stout, Pale Ale, and Honey Cream Ale–are gaining traction in Gainesville and throughout Florida.  The Swamp (a UF campus bar not known for its openness to craft beers) as well as the Gainesville franchises of Bonefish Grill and TGI Friday’s recently tapped Swamp Head brews.  Good on the managers of these establishments for their local responsiveness.  Swamp Head has also transcended in-state rivalry as its beers are now served in bars in FSU’s Tallahassee.

A final chamber of commerce shout-out.  Almost imperceptible on Alcove’s outside mailbox is a Hype Machine gramophone sticker.  Owner Evan also has one on his bike.  Hype Machine is one of the web’s best music blogs, and I am not just saying that because one of its founders is a Gator alum.  Consider this piece from a statelier source than mine, The Atlantic magazine:  http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2010/08/the-joy-of-the-hype-machine-music-ex-machina/61163.

Hype Machine is more of a blog consolidator than a blog.  When prominent music bloggers write about and post what they are listening to, Hype Machine finds their entries and sorts them into its own prêt-a-play format.  If you want the latest remixes, dubs, indie tracks, mashups, etc. then visit Hype Machine.  They did a cool thing in ’09 where they ranked the year’s best tracks, albums and artists, making it easy for your grandfather to get hip with what is good these days.  Hype Machine will make your discussions of music current and salient which is useful for snobbery and one-upmanship.

Alcove, Grooveshark, Swamp Head Brewery and Hype Machine:  four entrepreneurial ventures that have created jobs, buzz and tax revenue for Gainesville.

Back to the bar.  I ask Evan, “What would you drink today?,” a safe strategy when dealing with an overwhelming selection of unknown flavors.  At his suggestion I try the Oskar Blues Gubna Imperial IPA and am pleased.  I only wish I had the vocabulary to describe this ale, to comment on its color, notes and palate.  Instead, I refer you to the aficionados on sites like ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com.  I find it refreshing that there is no honor bestowed on expert beer drinkers like the sommelier for wine.  The guiding of opinion on beer feels more democratic, no group owns the adjectives.

Alcove offers 8oz. teaser drafts priced below $4.00, allowing you to sample beers.  I next order an 8oz. Cigar City Brewing’s Jai-Alai India Pale Ale, an ale brewed in Tampa, Florida.  I find its crude label charming, it looks like a kid made it on an old computer.  It would be cool if Cigar City used a small Jai-Alai xistera as a tap for this beer.  Cooler still is the word “xistera.”

Jai-Alai IPA is apparently Cigar City’s brewer Wayne Wambles’ favorite beer.  The name Cigar City Brewing borrows from Tampa’s century old cigar manufacturing industry, spawned by Cuban immigrants in the late 19th century.  Though you can still get hand rolled cigars in Tampa’s Ybor City, the city’s cigar industry has long since peaked.  But Tampa’s beer history is being penned fresh by Cigar City Brewing.

Florida has long been a brewing backwater.  Florida’s first brewery, The Florida Brewing Company, was located in Ybor City and brewed La Tropical, a take on a traditional Cuban line of beers of the same name.  I declare this fact on the word of Cigar City’s own website which has a quick write-up on Florida’s spotty beer history.  Given the dearth of tradition in Florida brewing, Cigar City’s owner Joey Redner has picked up where no one left off.

You might recognize that name.  Joey’s father Joe Redner, runs for city and county level offices every chance he gets.  He comes close but never wins.  Joe Redner’s appeal is that he offers a breath of contrarian air.  He is active in the community as a businessman and champion of the Tampa Bay area.  Oh yeah, his business, he owns Mons Venus.  Father Joe brews a different adult concoction than his son Joey.

I extinguish my Cigar and look at the chalkboard draft menu.  Drafts are the way to go here but Alcove is not just drafts.  The bar also hosts a choice beer bottle menu.  And those not interested in expensive or obscure beers can order a pedestrian $2.00 (yet 5.0%) Narragansett Lager.  There is also a short wine list of select reds, whites, roses and even sake.  If you ladies want a funky atmosphere to sip down some wine before going to your favorite downtown restaurant then consider Alcove.

Ever try mead?  Mead is wine made by fermenting honey.  Of old European origins, it pairs well with Beowulf or a Nordic saga.  Alcove offers two meads by the glass.  Should the experience of drinking mead inspire you, you might try making your own at home.  To begin, visit the comprehensive, yet low-tech website for aspiring meadheads at gotmead.com.  Develop your mead making chops and you can enter your stock into the Mazer Cup International, an annual mead competition held in Boulder, Colorado.  But try it first, it is quite ripe.  I am proud for finishing this glass of cold mead but am not likely to order it again.  More certain is my future return to Alcove, the next time with a group, for the ease and pleasure of tonight’s session motivates me to proselytize.

Alcove is a modest and elusive place, it blushes as I speak about its superlatives, but it needs such advocacy because its ethos is subthreshold and demure.  On its simple homepage is a picture of the bar at night (of its sly, colorful, and inviting facade) and links to join its facebook page, and to follow the bar on twitter.  Evan regularly updates these social networking sites with specials and happenings such as the recent release of the 10-10-10 (October 10, 2010) Swamp Head Imperial IPA.   I found only a few reviews of the bar online.  On beeradvocate.com, visitors have graded Alcove a solid “A,” and as one reviewer on Yelp put it, “They suck at being lame.”

Beer bars come off a bit dude-y, but soon a girl walks in.  We play some brain games.  With Evan, we try to name all fifty states and collectively we do it.  It makes me wonder how many people can name all 230-ish countries in the world.  That is more than the number of bones in your body.  I must have a buzz.

It takes seconds to walk from Alcove to Paramount Grill…

#

Links and Such

Below is a list of links to find out more about the businesses mentioned in this piece.  I recommend “fanning” them on facebook to stay updated.

Alcove

www.alcovebar.com

twitter.com/alcovebar

www.facebook.com/alcovebar

Swamp Head Brewery

www.swamphead.com

Cigar City Brewing

www.cigarcitybrewing.com

Grooveshark

www.grooveshark.com

Hype Machine

www.hypem.com

I will cite columnist Brianti Downing’s February 2010 article from the Gainesville sun found here: http://www.gainesville.com/article/20100221/ARTICLES/100219315 as a good source of info on the story of Swamp Head Brewery.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bistro 1245

I Rarely Cuss

I am excited to eat at Bistro 1245 today.  It is one of the best values in Gainesville.

Bistro 1245 is the small restaurant attached to longtime tenant Leonardo’s Pizza.  It is part of the triumvirate of restaurants under the same ownership umbrella.  The lead triumvir is the finer dining Leonardo’s 706, further east on University Avenue.  I’ll guess that Leonardo’s Pizza wears the revenue crown.  Then there’s Bistro.

Bistro advertises gourmet food at student prices and they deliver.  For just under $9.00 you can have a grilled cheese sandwich of provolone, Gouda and gruyere cheeses topped with tomato and bacon.  But the choicest ‘wich is the sesame seared duck sandwich.  I know of no other restaurant offering this savory treat.  For $9.95 it’s a steal.  Also a bargain is the oft featured evening steak special which features a thick sirloin atop mashed potatoes and asparagus spears all covered in a beurre blanc sauce.  For $10.95 it is the best special of its kind in town.  It probably pairs well with a variety of the wines they have corked and for sale but I’m not the wine connoisseur.

I find a parking spot in the ill-paved lot.  I open the back door.  “Hey neighbor!”  I say to a waitress I recognize.

“I’m not your neighbor anymore,” she tells me, coldly.  It’s as if I’ve been bothering her all day.

“Okay!” I say with sarcastic pep.  My feelings have been hurt (awww..).  You see, the waitress I have greeted used to live in my apartment complex so I thought it would be refreshing to her for me to say hello.  It turns out that even girls can be dicks.  Her dismissal of my congeniality has pricked me.  I start to re-analyze Bistro down to the paint.

I scan the waiters and construct their ethos:  we are repulsed by the masses, our disappointment in you will be palpable, we hate our job, we can’t wait to get out of here.  The waitstaff at Bistro has no rebound from a bad table.  They are terrible actors.  And the acoustics are not in their favor.  No matter where you sit you can hear the thrum of the kitchen, but overpowering the sizzle of the grill is the waiters’ vocalized angst.  When they slam the ice chest shut it’s clear that someone has shafted them on the bill and when they bring you an ice water and you decline the offer of a glass of wine they think you’re the next cheap asshole.

I rarely cuss but, what the fuck?  I’m doing takeout from now on.  I don’t need this drama.  I’ll blame the owner on the lack of resilience of the waitstaff.  Bistro needs to model itself more after 706 than Leonardo’s Pizza.  And when I next come here to pick up my order, I just might perch up at the bar (where no one is allowed to sit) and watch the kitchen action, keeping everyone on their toes.  They’re gonna hate me but I’ll keep coming back because the food is nice.

And I want to say this.  This is a University town, your customers are not dumb.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Prime Time

When I lived in Texas I asked my native Texan roommate what he thought was the best steakhouse in town.  His answer was, “Man, I can cook a better steak at home.”  I always liked that answer.  True Texan confidence.

A New York strip from Publix costs around 13 dollars.  The strip on the menus of Gainesville’s top steakhouses, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, MT’s Chophouse and Embers hovers around 35 dollars.  Feeling that the near threefold markup could use some explaining, I went on a quest to determine some value embedded in the premium.

Butter

Poised in the best location of the three restaurants is Mark’s Prime Steakhouse.  Its downtown address positions it in the heart of a pre-and post-dinner scene, making it attractive and versatile for a date.  It is also a good place to hold meetings or a company party.  Peek into the private dining room and you might see pharmaceutical reps attempting to charm doctors or attorneys perusing spreadsheets and counting their billings.  Celebrate the anniversary of your first year of business at Mark’s.

Mark’s induces a noise level that is fit for the merry.  Conviviality abounds, laughter is permitted.  It’s upscale but Mark’s will not turn down business.  I have seen guys walk in wearing sandals.  It’s Gainesville, not the city.  But I would not wear a Daytona Beach tank-top and neon shorts.  A polo or an expensive t-shirt and jeans is fine, though this is an opportunity to make an impression.

Whenever possible, I eat at a restaurant’s bar.  I find my bartender at Mark’s to be a bit salty but I can understand.  I give bartenders a lot of rope.  They must not enjoy starting the same conversation every night.  But it is part of the job.  Give me something and I will give you something.  But if bartending is not your career choice it usually shows.

Mark’s is not always this melding of New York prices with Williston service.  At a recent birthday dinner for one of my friends, a college student named James handled our table of eight with ease and composure.  And though Mark’s, along with MT’s Chophouse and Embers, is pricey for Gainesville, entrees can be split and sides shared, dampening the blow.

My petite filet arrives.  It reeks of butter.  It cuts like butter too.

Jetsam

MT’s Chophouse owner Mark T. leaves culinary jetsam in his wake.  Not privy to details (and indifferent to them), I’ll say what I know of his transactions.  Mark T. created the eponymous and aforementioned, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, then sold it–yet they kept his name?–and opened his first Gainesville MT’s Chophouse at what is now the location of Embers.  He then opened MT’s Chophouse (redux) at its current location off of 39th Avenue out by I-75.  Got it?

Mark T. is a restaurat-/entrepren- eur.  But he’s a flipper.  He builds ‘em then sells ‘em.  Given his history, it is a challenge to follow his vision.  Each subsequent location of his restaurant gets more inconvenient.  He began downtown, moved to Archer Road and now he’s by the highway on Gainesville’s last northbound freeway exit.  He’s getting further and further away.   Will he eventually leave Gainesville?

Because everyone who has eaten there will tell you this, MT’s menus light up from behind.  It’s a clever touch, but you’re paying for it.  Call it the lit menu premium.

Oh, the food.  Eh, it’s great.

Embers

Cool name huh?  Embers.  Gainesville’s “only U.S. Prime Cut steakhouse,” though that confuses me.  Why is Mark’s Prime Steakhouse downtown called Mark’s Prime?

I’m with friends and we’re waiting on someone so we go to the bar.  I want the draft list to be a bit funkier, especially since I know Gainesville restaurants can source nearly any beer (visit Alcove or Stubbies and Steins to confirm).  They do have a Lambic on tap but I settle for a Bass.

My friend is doing her best to guide her girlfriend here, but texting directions to Embers is difficult.  It is on 43rd, in between Newberry and Archer roads.  If coming from the North, once you pass the Goodwill you have to flip a bitch and quickly turn into the parking lot.  If coming from the South and you pass the Goodwill you’ve gone too far and it is hell to turn around.  You are better off keeping your girlfriend on the phone while she drives on 43rd, but talking and driving is illegal, right?  Better to Google map it.  Her girlfriend eventually figures it out and we take a table.

North-Central Florida’s only sommelier is a co-owner of Embers.  It shows in the wine list.  I am delighted to see several Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs on the menu.  My friend orders a bottle for the table but he pronounces Willamette incorrectly as “Will-a-met.”  I correct him, saying it’s pronounced, “Will-a-may,” like a French word.  Our waiter corrects us both but is afraid to say how people from the Oregon valley would correct us.  We tell him that we are a fun crowd and he can say whatever he wants.  “It’s Will-am-it, damnit,” our waiter tells us.  He’s delighted that we are not stiffs and we are delighted that he’s not one too.

At our waiter’s suggestion we order the Filet Mignon Flatbread.  When it comes out, my friend goes, “looks like California Pizza Kitchen.”  If you intend to order a steak for dinner then this app is unnecessary.  Favor the fried gator tail with remoulade.

I preface my dinner order with “I’m torn between…”   Do I want the slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone short ribs–not on many Gainesville menus–or a steak?   The waiter gives slight favor to the steak which is twelve dollars more expensive.  It’s a predictable consequence of showing your indecision.  It’s not up selling, it’s good rhetoric.  At some restaurants, waiters deliberately assert the most expensive item as the choicest item, but an exceptional waiter scores the decision like a boxing analyst scores a close fight, giving only a slight edge to one fighter over the other.  At Embers the waiter artfully equivocates, and I order the New York Strip along with kissing-friendly Vidalia onions and the sautéed trio of cremini, portobello and shiitake wild mushrooms.  And, unlike Mark’s or MT’s, at Embers I do not pay extra for these sides.

Bingo!

Seared Ahi tuna followed by a wood grilled New York strip served with a side of sautéed spinach.  Bingo!

There is much overlap between these restaurants.  Were the restaurants boxers, then they would have equal height, weight and reach and matching records.  Standardize the fonts and their dinner menus read like identical bingo cards.

So am I “torn between” or is there a unanimous decision on the winner of this steak-off?  To be honest, I’m not really scoring the fight.  As is my hope for most independent Gainesville restaurants, I hope they all perform like champions.

But I have watched them spar and taken notes.  With its downtown address, Mark’s has an effective jab.  Not that it would, but Mark’s could let its guard down, lapse on quality and still survive because of its location.  On food, beware Mark T.’s haymaker because he’s that strong.  But he’s proven flighty before and fast footwork sometimes hides a glass jaw.  Enjoy watching his superb technique while he’s still in the ring (i.e. Gainesville).

For the local enthusiast, Embers is the prize fighter.  If you want an impressive and market price date then consider the Chef’s Table at Embers.  Like ordering a sashimi platter at a sushi bar, you will get, at the intersection of the chef’s and your discretion, a variety of what is fresh that evening.  The meal will include pairings suggested by sommelier Ryan Todd and the opportunity to interact with Chef Briton Dumas, a Gainesville native.  And when the fall weather comes in mid-December you can enjoy the experience outside on Embers’ patio, a strength the other boys lack.

Costs are often better conceptualized when broken down to their per-unit value.  Playing golf at Pebble Beach, for example, costs around $400 per round equating to $22 per hole or around $4.50 per shot for the 18 handicapper.  That’s 5 dollar gimmes!  I estimate that a 6 oz. petite filet yields ten bites.  At Embers, Mark’s or MT’s, that’s nearly 3 dollars a bite.   I’m wiser going to Publix and buying steaks but I do not own a grill.  Instead, I have to broil steaks on a pan in my oven.  I’m not a Texan, I do not have the skill or bravado to cook a steak better than these places can.  But if I go too deep on the first date then I’m in a hole.  Solution?

We’re going to Outback.  I’ll take her to Pebble Beach once I’m sure she’s really into golf (and me).

#

Endnote:  Embers would have beautiful golf course views but the property owners tore down the putt-putt that used to be there.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mexican en la Avenida

Mouth Party

On Sunday at 1:00pm a burly bearded bartender bangs a bongo drum beginning “First Call,” the best fifteen minutes in Gainesville.

Every Sunday from 1:00pm to 1:15pm Boca Fiesta serves free pints of draft beer.  Right now it is 1:07 pm and I’m eating a rabbit taco at the bar and angling for my second free beer.  The bar is flooded with tattooed hospitality employees who serve at and run the kitchens of downtown establishments.  They are my competition for getting the bartender’s attention.  Because I am not in the scene, I am at a disadvantage.  The most I have been able to order during First Call is two pints.  By 1:17 the workers have vanished, leaving a line of empty, froth stained pint glasses on the bar.

Boca Fiesta translates from Spanish into “mouth party” and adding verde sauce to my hare meat taco, I agree.  It is not unusual to find such a unique taco filling here.  Each month Boca Fiesta offers a signature taco to challenge the palate.  Tacos of months past have included ground antelope, coconut curry kangaroo, tequila-lime ostrich, and a rattlesnake-rabbit sausage taco.  Gator tail meat is not a special filling but a staple on the menu as are your normal meats of pork, chicken and steak.  Fear not Vegetarians, Vegans and Pescatarians, also guaranteed is blackened tilapia, locally batched Gainesville tempeh, vegetarian ground beef and all-vegetable fillings.  There are also taco salads which go well with their orange-rosemary dressing.

As I chew my last bite of bunny I am inspired with an idea.  Why not walk from downtown to campus eating something from every Mexican restaurant on University Avenue?  A Mexican scavenger hunt.

Taco Hell

The cardinal intersection of Main Street and University Avenue splits Gainesville to the north and south and east and west.   From Boca Fiesta I walk north on Main Street to University Avenue where I turn left and walk west towards campus.  I pass Stubbies and Steins, the beer bar with freshly prepped German food and an overwhelming selection of brews.  Across the street is Durty Nelly’s, perhaps the only bar where I have a chance to meet a girl my age…

See, a pure-play college town, Gainesville caters to the 18-23 year old crowd.  The town is their pit-stop.  Kids from all over the state come here, pillage with their peers and leave.  It makes for a tough demographic for a single 30-year old.  Your only hope is to be clever enough to pull off the ten-down rule and date a co-ed.  Though I do not consider myself old, high school was half my life ago and I was called “sir” by a girl working at the Chick-fil-A on campus the other day.  I hate getting called sir.  Gainesville guys in my cohort roam in a libidinal fallout.

Past Durty Nelly’s to the Seagle Building (Gainesville’s tallest), is an uninspired wasteland of failed bars and music clubs.  The Venue, formerly The Florida Theater, used to host national acts from the “college music” scene but bad rap act after bad rap act in the oughts slowly rotted its soul and now it has no purpose.  Stalwart billiard hall Silver Q does not gleam.  A hideous cow print covers the country bar, :08 Seconds.  I think a laser tag bar just opened next door.  The revival of downtown ended blocks ago.

I soon cross railroad tracks and enter the fringe of what people now call “Midtown,” the strip of establishments between the tracks to the east and the end of campus to the west.  Midtown looks like Guadalupe “The Drag” in Austin, Texas or High Street in Columbus, Ohio.  So, it looks like crap.

Oh shit there’s a Taco Bell on my right.  I forgot about the Taco Bell.  “Toxic Belch, Taco Smell, Taco Hell.”  There’s no way I’m stopping here because I love Taco Bell and will eat too much, preventing me from completing my mission.  Besides, I’ve always been afraid of this one.  Legend has it that when this Taco Bell first opened a guy was slugged down in the drive thru by someone wielding a baseball bat.  But, to keep my journey pure, I stop at the Taco Bell and order my favorite: Nachos Bellgrande without beans.  The pasty, refried beans sog up the corn chips, making them chewy rather than crisp.

Tacos at Mothers?

Further west and across the street is Mother’s Pub and Grill, an Irish-ish themed sports pub.  I’m a day early for tacos at Mother’s.  Tomorrow the pub will be serving simple ground beef, cheese and tomato hard shell tacos for $.50 apiece.  It is just one of their great deals.

After my Wednesday golf game I go with my best friend to Mother’s for their two dollar burgers and one dollar cans of Narragansett Lager.  And for $.50 cents more and you can get tots instead of fries.  Solid.  My buddy jokes that the burgers are made of mouse meat.  But for two dollars the burgers are good and I think it is not mouse meat but that Mother’s works a low margin / high volume profit model.  I leave Mother’s on Wednesdays having spent less than 10 dollars including tip.

A side note:  For the decadent, Mother’s serves an off-menu “garbage plate,” a dish of fries covered in philly meat, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and topped with movie nacho cheese.  I’ve yet to try it but I’m sure it’s like it sounds.

I cross U.S. Route 441, a.k.a. 13th Street, a.k.a. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, what have you.

Burrito Brothers

Poor Burrito Brothers.  It is surrounded by new competition, has never had parking and now it’s trapped in a church, literally.  Burrito Brothers rents space from the Presbyterian Student Center.  One day an older alum asked me where Burrito Brothers was and it was hell to guide him.

“So it’s next to a church now?”

“No, it’s in the church building next to the Target Copy and next to the new church where Burrito Brothers used to be before they demolished the entire corner of 13th and University.”

“It’s in between the churches?”

“No it’s in the church owned building.”  I confused the guy.  He walked away and I saw him pull aside a young girl who likely had no idea where Burrito Brothers was or tried to tell him the same thing I had told him.  That it’s in the blessed church.

At least I know where it is.  I push through the wooden door and enter the small, tree-shaded patio.  The old Burrito Brothers used to be a closet sized room with a kitchen, a counter and no seating, so the patio is an improvement.  When they moved to the Presbyterian Student Center, employees and customers got room to breathe.  The line is long so I have time to contemplate the menu which I have had memorized since I was ten.

A lit green neon sign in the order window spells “GUAC.”  Like Krispy Kreme, when the light is on, it’s fresh and ready.  The hottest menu item is the standard guacamole and chips which sells out fast so the light is often off.

Burrito Bros’ red sauce is the best in town, not spicy but, rather, imbued with spices.  They pair the red sauce with their beef filled products but you can get it with any item.  The chicken filling is usually paired with the verde sauce which is not as good.  I like the beef here but one of my friends, a Chipotle devotee, complained, “It’s like hamburger meat.”  It is actually called ground beef, and it is good.  I recommend a black bean and beef primo burrito fully loaded and double wrapped to prevent it from spilling everywhere.  They sort the black beans by hand and strain the choice ones perfectly.

Burrito Bros. is forever uniquely Gainesville.  A UF alum tried to open a large Burrito Brothers on Dale Mabry Boulevard in Tampa, Florida but it closed in a year.  I was living in Tampa at the time and was furious when it closed.  The owner had nailed it.  The food tasted exactly the same as the Gainesville restaurant because he got permission to use the same recipes and cooking techniques.  The guy poured his life into replicating his favorite college restaurant and failed.  I still admire his passion though.  I’ll be cheesy (unintentional Mexican food entendre) and say that it is worth spreading the “gospel” of this church / restaurant.

Chipotle

Walk out Burrito Brothers, pass a Target Copy and, bam, there’s a Chipotle.  More Mexican food.  I’m starting to get the meat sweats.  And what do I add to a discussion of Chipotle?  Just visit their website.

Nothing screams gringo Mexican food more than Chipotle.  Since McDonaldization is now vernacular I’ll mention that the word is relevant when scrutinizing the franchise.  In fact, McDonalds was a major shareholder in Chipotle and helped vault it to its current success.  Some hold grudges and boycott Chipotle because they associate it with the Big Mac.  But check your corporate finance.  McDonalds is fully divested as of 2006, so that should minimize some criticism.  Give Chipotle a chance to define itself.

I say that and then order a 1,000 calorie barbacoa burrito bowl.  I struggle to wade through the mound of guacamole, dollop of sour cream and pound of cheese covering my ounce of meat.  I leave half of my bowl uneaten.  I’d take the remaining 500 calories home with me but I’m walking and do not feel like lifting weights too.  What a waste.

101 Cantina

Further west is 101 Cantina.  I already wrote a review of this joint here:  https://timothyeat.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/101-cantina

Ibid.

Tijuana Flats

More like Tijuana Frats.  I am surrounded by sorority girls in their blue and orange Greek letter jackets.  Am I interrupting chapter?  I am not complaining though.

I order the special, chipotle lime pork enchiladas, and grab a variety of sauces from Tijuana’s signature hot sauce bar.  The hot sauce bar is not overrated.  My favorite is Jason’s Mom’s Sauce made with citrus and habanero.  As the label says, “It’s sweet.  It’s spicy.  Nah, it’s Swicy.”  Tijuana Flats has a great sense of humor and color.  The walls and ceilings are covered with doodles and murals.

Tijuana Flats is proud of its origins and its success as a fast Mexican restaurant chain.  It was founded in Orlando, Florida in 1995 by Brian Wheeler, a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida who received seed money from his father to start the business.  Brian did not let his father down.  Tijuana Flats now has over 50+ restaurants in multiple states.  The parent company also asserts itself as a player in the hot sauce game.  I don’t know what the margins are in hot sauce but Tijuana Flats is committed to distributing a large selection so they must make some money off it.

Tijuana Flats has soft crushed ice and the bubbly waitresses continually fill up your cup.  My enchiladas are good but the beans are mush.  Remember, Burrito Brothers is the place for black beans.

My journey west has ended in Tijuana.  I cannot look at another bite.  I am losing blood to my brain.  My stomach feels swicy and I am dizzy with food.  I left my car downtown where I began and have an hour walk back to it.  Maybe I will stop at Bistro 1245 for dessert along the way?  Most likely not.

Meat sweats.  I love them.  I turn around and walk east.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dragonfly Sushi and Sake Company

Dragonfly moves product.  One need only perch at the sushi bar and examine the fish cooler.  Be skeptical of a sushi cooler with windows too clean because this implies the restaurant is not doing much business.  If there are not smears from fish oils and chefs’ fingers on the glass of the cooler window then the restaurant is not fully engaged.  Dragonfly’s cooler window gleams with the proper amount of opacity.

A good sushi chef recognizes the solo client like me as an opportunity.  I am the freshest fish in his restaurant, waiting to be caught by the hook of good service.  The chef need only provide some conversation and I will reciprocate his attention with a tip.  The most mindful of sushi chefs will give you something for free as a gesture of their appreciation for your business.  It can be something as crude as fried salmon skin as far as I’m concerned, just remind me that I exist.  The worst sushi chefs are mutes and ignore the diners at their bar.  They need to be reminded that it’s a sales job as much as a cooking gig.  A little banter holds a lot of currency.

I get into a nice chat with a chef from Grass Valley, California.

“I bet you’ve heard a lot of jokes about coming from a place called that!,” I say.

He tells me about growing up in California, about how pure the landscape is there.  He tells me how his father is a professor and how he ended up here in Gainesville, Florida.  He gives me a piece of seared escolar wrapped around a jalapeño slice.  I like this guy.

But sadly, the Dragonfly sushi bar tip jar is empty.  There’s not even the bait of the chefs’ own money in the jar as motivation for patrons to put more money into it.  It is an empty glass vase.  It appears that in Gainesville, people are not properly tipping these amicable and able sushi chefs.

My octopus carpaccio in a Yuzu sauce, two nigiri pieces of baby octopus, and two nigiri spicy conch pieces come out.  The wasabi smear is in the shape of a dragonfly.  A waiter walks by me and notices my baby octopus and says it’s his favorite thing on the menu.  I agree.  Baby octopi, I love the crunchy bastards.

Some other thoughts.  Dragonfly is sharply dressed yet is as functional as a dining hall.  Its kitchen is properly staffed and can handle the largest of crowds.  The bosses must be treating people well because I swear I’ve seen the same fry cook drizzling chocolate sauce on fried cheesecake for years now.  Have I ever had a bad meal here?  Of course there’s a wait for a party of two or more, but wait.  It’s worth it.

I offer few improvements to the restaurant.  My only suggestion to alter the ambiance of the restaurant would be to show different films on the flat screen TV’s.  I have been coming here since it opened and will attest that Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Rashomon is always on.  Perhaps they could add Jet Li’s colorful Once Upon a Time in China series or some seminal Hong Kong films to the rota.  The stately black and white of Kurosawa does not always complement the colorful clientele or the liveliness of the place at peak hours.  Jet Li me when the crowd assembles.

I pay my bill and finish my sake.  Scrolls of new orders are printing out in front of the chefs.  The fryers are bubbling, a lower order chef strains a bucket of roe, the head chef rips open fresh packets of seaweed.  His sharp blade crunches cleanly through its layers.  Sit here long enough and you’ll hear the crunch of packet after packet.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Original Pizza Palace

A Tenuous Trichotomy

The Original Pizza Palace (OPP) on Gainesville’s NW 13th Street is an Italian restaurant, a breakfast joint and a loaded kitchen sink.  Let’s go through a hypothetical day of meals at OPP to be sure.

At 7:00 am the doors open for breakfast.  You walk inside and immediately notice the bright yellow wall paint and green painted wooden support beams.  The colors strike you as odd, tweaking your mood even.

Since you’ve never had an Italian breakfast (unless you consider cold pizza to be one) you are not sure what to expect until you look at the menu where everything appears to be normal.  There are egg scrambles, biscuits and gravy, root vegetable hash browns, and, true to the restaurant’s name, breakfast pizza.  The coffee is Gainesville’s own Sweetwater organic and the chalkboard above the kitchen features dozens of organic homemade juices from blackberry acai to carrot.  Hell, you can even order a mimosa this morning.  The breakfast is a winner and needs a marketing push.  OPP has wireless so you enjoy the bottomless coffee and stay for lunch.

At lunch, it’s pizza time.  You order a small pie for yourself topped with garlic, bacon and broccoli.  The portion size is correct, the toppings are fresh but the pizza is lacking.  It’s the dough, it’ spongy and underdone.  You have it wrapped to go but are unsure if you will eat it at home.  So, strangely, though a pizza palace, the best part of the food here is not the pizza, and though you appreciate the return of OPP you are now more inclined to take visitors to Satchels or even Blue Highway for a premium pizza experience.

But you do not give up on this joint, only for dinner you opt out of Italian and instead order one of the markerboard specials.  You order a half-carafe of wine because the two craft beers they have decided to put on tap are unfamiliar.  The markerboard specials are interesting.  It would help to call ahead to find out the whim of the chef that evening.  Tonight the chef has decided to offer a Tajine (Moroccan stew) as a special.  You order it and it is delicious. (Oddly enough on the regular menu is slow cooked southern pork.  Again, who would think to come here for this?)    .

OPP fancies itself a bakery too, so also in the kitchen sink are fresh loaves of bread, granola, cookies and pies.  You enjoy the coffee-buttercrunch pie but the slice is small.  You end on the same Sweetwater coffee that greeted you.

As you leave OPP, that yellow wall paint still bothers you.  An off white would look better—so would dimmer lights.  The current environment is too bright to be intimate.  But you will be back because the chef’s are dying to break out of the menu and the place has heart.  OPP just needs to figure out a better way to market its tenuous trichotomy.  Perhaps it should just call itself “The Palace.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

101 Cantina

No business has ever survived in the location of 101 Cantina.

So when I learned that the management of 101 Downtown was investing in the location, I was split between believing that they might be qualified to pull it off and that they were naïve, perhaps even ignorant.  Did these cocky restaurateurs know of the ghosts haunting this famous Gainesville graveyard?

Switching metaphors, the site has proven a minefield for hopeful business owners.  In the 90’s, the building was the home of Gainesville’s best music store, Schoolkids, where I discovered what was beginning to be called “Alternative” music.  This was when CD’s came in elegant paper boxes, the last breath of album art.  After Schoolkids (and the death of flannel), the building was split into two retail sites which became who-can-remember-because-they-change-every-year.  Today, the summer of 2010, the building hosts 101 Cantina and a brand new Mochi Berry (Gainesville’s third in a year)—a mismatched pair of new shoes in an old hurt locker.

101 Cantina is best entered from behind (no jokes, please) at its outside tiki bar entrance.  The bar is a squat hut with a palm thatched roof.   During an inevitable Florida shower the roof repels water well, only the fronds do not drape far enough out over the wooden barstools to prevent patrons from getting wet.  Instead the bartenders stay dry while your shorts soak up the splashes and drips.  Thus, the rain compels you to the inside half of the restaurant which is less fun and less important to describe.  I’ll save you boredom and tell you that the tiki bar on a clear day is the only way to do 101 Cantina.

Underneath said thatching are four flat screen TV’s, a well provisioned liquor bar, a fridge stocked with bottled Mexican beers, and bubbly, female bartenders who might take your drink order if they could just turn away from their conversation with their friends who are visiting them at work.  If you are lucky, one of the dozen all-male managers skulking around might get her attention.  Redeeming the experience is that 101 Cantina hires hotness.  This makes critiquing servers difficult for any man, including a manager.  So you tolerate damp shorts and the lack of attention from pretty girls.

The restaurant is rife with inefficiencies, not all of which are the fault of servers and managers.  For example, if you order a draft beer inside, the bartender has to leave the bar to get it or tell another waitress to get the beer because all the taps are outside.  Imagine the clusterfuck on a gameday with this system.  When packed, 101 Cantina offers impossible angles to get to and from the inside and outside.  Thus, perhaps the largest constraint facing the venue is space.  The inside is no larger than an ice-cream parlor (no wonder a Mochi is next door).  Most Starbucks are roomier.  But the venue size and odd location of the keg cooler can hardly be called anyone’s fault.  The employees accommodate as best they can.

101 Cantina’s tiki bar fills a need in Gainesville, however the place gives off the air that you need it but that it does not need you.  Locals caught on to this quickly.  After a slow opening, word spread in Gainesville that yet another business was trying to make a go.  People came once and never returned.  See, it takes something special to bring old locals to campus on a non-football day and 101 Cantina somehow fell short.

Doubly upsetting locals was the impending muscling out of Café Gardens, the restaurant adjacent to Cantina 101 that had lasted over thirty years.  At Café Gardens’ final evening of business, here was 101 Cantina, the new generation, blowing out the final encore of live folk music in the Café’s patio with its techno and un-censored rap music (i.e. don’t bring kids there).  The contrast between new Gainesville and old was palpable.

Salvaging 101 Cantina is the amount of business it gets from its employees (including those from 101 Downtown), their friends and, of course, students.  And there are positives.  For example, 101 Cantina offers great lunch specials at a low price.  The $5 enchiladas are cheaper than Tijuana Flats down the street and at par in quality.  Actually, something about the food coming out of a proper prep kitchen makes it taste a little better.

No business has ever survived in the location of 101 Cantina, and one wonders if its owners even care, if longevity and integration into the Gainesville community is a goal of theirs.  On their website at 101managementgroup.com they offer little in terms of the background of the group, its members, its leadership, etc.  They sum up their mission as having “one simple standard to follow: quality is key.”  For all we know, they might just be in Gainesville to pillage, poach and leave once they hit adolescence, if the community allows them to make it that far.

101 Cantina, like many businesses on University Avenue may not survive five years.  Should it, then the restaurant might be called a success.  Should it not, then I at least hope that the subsequent tenant keeps the tiki hut out back.

Given the history of the location, I often muse about what will come next.  My latest hope is that it will be a raw bar, campus could use one.  But I still hold out that the location will summon another folksy, humble and consistent place like Café Gardens.  Now that was a success.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment