Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | The Sheik on North Main Street, in business since the 1970s, is one of the six fast-food shops in a Jacksonville chain. Like the unaffiliated Desert Rider downtown and Desert Sand on Beach Boulevard, they serve sandwiches—club, ham and cheese, bacon and egg, that sort of thing—tucked into pita bread. By my count, a couple dozen or more sandwich shops around town share a similar bill of fare. Come breakfast, pita cheese toast is a favorite. So is the link, egg, and cheese sack. Not to mention the breakfast in a cup, a sundae-like stack of grits, patty sausage, and eggs. At lunch, the steak-in-a-sack and the cold cut-stuffed camel rider are the main events.
1510 King Street, Jacksonville FL 32204 (map); 904-389-0355
Must-Haves: The desert rider sandiches and the tabouli omelet
The term camel rider might play as a pejorative in most cities, but here in Jacksonville—which has among the largest Arab Middle Eastern communities on the East Coast—it's a marker of influence among immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who, fleeing the economic decline and religious persecution of the Ottoman Empire, began settling in the area in the 1890s.
Many Arab immigrants made their way as peddlers. Some opened groceries, which in time evolved into sandwich shops. Assimilation was the watchword. Mohammed became Mo. Saliba became Sal. Men with surnames like Hazouri built houses of worship like Mount Olive Syrian Presbyterian Church. By 1915 the Syrian American Club was thriving. The Ramallah American Club followed in the 1950s.
For reasons that are unclear, pita bread—and sandwiches stuffed into pita bread—function as totems of both assimilation and enduring ethnic identity among Arabs of Jacksonville. Even sandwiches like the Anne Beard (turkey, tabouli, feta, peppers, and Italian dressing), served by Sam Salem, owner of the Whiteway Delicatessen in the Riverside neighborhood, broadcast Middle Eastern origins by means of the customary envelope.
Sam, who took over the 1927 vintage café from his father, Paul, a native of Ramallah, probably serves the best pita sandwiches in town. Though he's proud of his desert rider, I dote on Whiteway's tabouli omelet. Served in a cardboard boat, it's a puff of egg layered with slabs of feta and a cool scoop of parsley, bulgur, and tomato, the whole affair stuffed inside a warm pita pouch.
When I asked Sam whether he considers the term camel rider a pejorative, he changes the subject and directs my attention toward the archive of candid customer photos he has taken over the past 30-odd years. Sam's chronicle of life at Whiteway is exhaustive, filling dozens of scrapbooks, scores of boxes. By way of an answer, he picks a box up at random and begins sifting through what he calls his "collage of people," calling every second subject by name, reciting their life stories, telling me who they are, who they were, and where they are now.