A guide to Gainesville’s greasy-good fast food joints.

Illustrations by Elizabeth Suarez

 

A new McDonald’s opened on University Avenue, just a few blocks west of its chain restaurant counterparts Taco Bell and Checkers. Far from the typical greasy drive-thru, it’s modern, trendy, and people have noticed. Though the place is packed with patrons gobbling Big Macs behind its giant glass windows, don’t be fooled by this expensive potemkin. What’s cooking inside is as mediocre as always. Special sauce is still just Russian dressing, McNuggets are still probably not chicken, and the Filet-O-Fish is still too eerily square. In any case, if you want fast, cheap food, you don’t have to be “lovin’ it.” Or for that matter, supporting unfair minimum wages, animal abuse and a red-haired demonic clown. Gainesville’s got local, fast eats, and they’re tasty to boot. • 

SANDWICH INN

110 NE 16TH AVE., GAINESVILLE, FLA.

Started in 1963, Sandwich Inn is the oldest restaurant in Gainesville. You are obligated to visit once, or at least point it out on the tour you give your friends from out-of-town. While parked under the mint green canopy, you half expect someone in roller skates to pop out and deliver you a malted shake. Sandwich Inn somehow manages not only to make tuna subs, Cuban sandwiches, grits, and triple cheeseburgers all in the same place but also at alarmingly low prices. Like, $2 prices. Having a bad day (or a brutal hangover)? Nothing cures quite like a country fried steak sandwich with cheese and an egg (and with mustard!). You must be vigilant, for you will have to confront the urge to order round upon round of biscuits n’ gravy. Long naps afterward are inevitable.

INSTEAD OF: Steak n’ Shake / SPEED: Purgatory / GREASE FACTOR: Do not put bag on clothing.

MI APÁ

114 SW 34TH ST., GAINESVILLE, FLA. 

Mi Apá is the most elaborate of Gainesville’s fast-food scene. Expect containers mounted with shredded spiced beef, sweet plantains, pressed sandwiches, pastries, arepas and fillets of breaded chicken. Expect to wait a little longer, but be rewarded with humongous portions: the arepas are full moons of corn patties stuffed with bulky hunks of Guayanes cheese. The lechon asado is more pork than plate. The arroz con pollo is two days worth of carbs. Caution: do not order Mi Apá and attempt to eat and drive. You will likely endanger someone while attempting to sip black beans from a styrofoam cup. Their Cuban coffee is also a must.

INSTEAD OF: Pollo Tropical GOOD / FOR: Dinner or Takeout / SPEED: like getting public wifi — uncertain

BAY ISLAND COFFEE

3270 SW 35TH BLVD., GAINESVILLE, FLA. 

In the commercial sprawl that is Butler Plaza, you chance upon a small building that looks like it’s gotten lost. Though no bigger than a tropical hotel shack where you’ve downed piña coladas, Bay Island manages to put out quite an impressive variety. Its menu offers coffee, hot and iced, smoothies, baked goods, breakfast sandwiches and lemonade. Hidden inside the tiny shop are shelves stuffed with bagels and an endless catalogue of coffee flavors. Their lattes range from almond, gingerbread, cinnamon and all the way to Creme Brûlée. The best way to prevent impulsively buying cookie dough at any of the Archer Road grocery stores is to have a quick bite from Bay Island beforehand.

INSTEAD OF: Dunkin’ Donuts / GOOD FOR: when the Starbucks drive thru is a 5+ car pileup / SPEED: fast-pass

COFFE CULTURE 

2020 NW 13TH ST., GAINESVILLE, FLA.

It’s too early for even NPR’s Morning Edition. You need coffee, but the idea of physically leaving your car is out of the question. Driving down 13th, you make out Coffee Culture’s cozy red sign, a welcome distraction from the fact that you are awake. At the menu, a static, disembodied barista voice will suddenly transform into that of a coffeehouse angel. (Helpful tip: an Americano with cream and sugar will be just hot enough to wake you up, but not too hot to drink. This drink can be consumed immediately.) Suddenly, the overly cheery and rehearsed “see you at the window!” is not irritating, but a caffeinated beacon of hope.

WHAT TIME: early mornings or late nights / INSTEAD OF: Starbucks / SPEED: Faster than driving to work before rush hour

EL INDIO

407 nw 13th st., gainesville, fla. & 5011 nw 34th st., GAINESVILLE, FLA. 

Located so close to college-ville, El Indio should be open later, but sadly closes at 10 p.m. At the time of writing, the 13th Street location is undergoing remodeling. A chorus of clanging metal and shouting construction workers now accompanies the chitter of patrons eating near the drive-thru. A burrito a carne asada, if you know what to order is your best bet if you want to eat on the go, but you might need your other hand to pour on their red and green salsas, which cool the tortilla’s hot contents while providing a little kick. El Indio is best for when you need a quick pick-me-up, perhaps before an exam (or after, if it was a bad one).

INSTEAD OF: Taco Bell / GOOD FOR: Study snack / SPEED: roadrunner

CHUNKY’S GRILL AND FRY CO. 

1445 SW HAWTHORNE RD., GAINESVILLE, FLA.  

Choose your own adventure because Chunky’s is having an identity crisis. Half of the menu is a fried smörgåsbord: fish, chicken, shrimp and oysters. The other side is gyros? Yes, if you get that all too familiar craving for fried chicken gizzards and tzatziki, search no more. Across from the pick-up window is a quaint sitting area, complete with red-painted benches, a plastic fawn —  for ambiance — and nearby residents glaring from their porches.  There, you can enjoy your steaming black styrofoam box heaped with fried curiosities, plus fries.

TIME: LUNCHTIME / INSTEAD OF: A POPEYES-SUBWAY HYBRID / SPEED: FRESH THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT!

MAC’S DRIVE THRU

129 NW 10TH AVE., GAINESVILLE, FLA. 

If you’re driving along Northwest 10th Ave. mid-afternoon and happen upon an avalanche of cars, don’t worry. There hasn’t been an accident. That’s just the line for Mac’s Drive Thru. Founded in 1987, Mac’s is an old-fashioned white brick building to be visited when you’re feeling too technologically overloaded. Once you order from what look like megaphones taped to poles, get the goods and pull into the Gainesville Shopping Center parking lot across the street. Sit quietly by yourself. This is simple food: root beer with crushed ice, hamburgers with orange plastic cheese, slightly squishy french fries. Each hamburger, gifted in a grease-laden parchment packet, comes either single or double. Mac’s has other sandwiches on their menu, but no one should drive away without a burger. Cash only.

GOOD FOR: FINALLY ATTAINING A TRANSCENDENT STATE / INSTEAD OF: MCDONALD’S / SPEED: DMV