OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
By DOROTHY J. GAITER and JOHN BRECHER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 1, 2005; Page D5
While fans pick sides for Sunday's Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., our wine columnists -- Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher -- offer their pick: a special sandwich shop that is a local institution.
In the years since John grew up in Jacksonville, the city has developed a burgeoning wine and food culture, but whenever we visit, we still go straight to a place we will always consider Jacksonville's unique contribution to the culinary world: Lubi's, home of the Lubi. If you find yourself in Jacksonville, change out of any light-colored clothes or anything you care dearly about, and drop in.
It's difficult to describe a Lubi, at least in terms that make it sound delicious. But trust us, once you've had one, you'll never forget it and you'll dream and scheme about how to get another. The four Lubi restaurants are little, informal places where you get a tray and stand in line. There are all sorts of typical snack-bar sandwiches, like camel riders, meatball subs and chicken-salad sandwiches, but the classic is the Lubi, listed on the menu as "Our Famous Lubi." It is a wonder: seasoned ground sirloin topped with mayonnaise, mustard, American cheese and a hot-pepper sauce and wedged into a steamed hero roll.
The restaurant offers a choice of five free toppings that you can heap on top of that. The result is so messy that its creators suggest you eat Lubis with a knife and fork. It is also, in another gastronomical way, a challenging dish. John's Aunt Miriam used to come down from New York, have a Lubi, suffer with indigestion for a day, and then have another.
There are many variations -- five others in fact, all built on top of the "Famous" Lubi. There's the Stroganoff Lubi that adds sour cream, mushroom gravy and mozzarella cheese; the Mean Machine, which has lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and Italian dressing; the Chili Lubi, which is topped with spicy homemade chili and American cheese; the Mozzarella Lubi, which is the best-seller and is topped with mozzarella cheese, sour cream and marinara sauce; and the Fiesta Lubi, which comes with chili, sour cream, American and mozzarella cheese, and lettuce and tomatoes. We like the Famous Lubi, the classic.
In fact, we have been so enamored of the Lubi that years ago, we figured we could duplicate it in our small Manhattan apartment. We bought a bottle each of the hot- and sweet-pepper sauce, schlepped them back to New York, and failed miserably. High art cannot be replicated.
Lubi's is a family-run restaurant that Lu and Bill Wallace opened in 1969 as a sideline to the couple's principal business, an ambulance service in the rear of the same property. The name is a combination of the first names of the couple, who later divorced. About six months after opening, while Lu and Bill were casting about for something unique, a salesman suggested they try a steamed sandwich and described one that he loved. Over time and with suggestions from customers, the Lubi evolved into what it is today.
How the Lubi is made is a family secret. They'll say only that it takes two days to make. The classic Lubi originally sold for 69 cents; today it costs $4.49. Lu Wallace now runs the restaurants with her son Niccolas DiRamio and daughter Nina Teuschel.
Oh, and by the way, before you ask: No, there is no wine that goes with a Lubi. You must eat it with their special cherry limeade, made from hand-squeezed limes. It comes in a large cup and costs $1.99. There are other beverages on the menu, including beer, but a Lubi must be eaten with the cherry limeade. There's a law about that in Jacksonville -- or at least there should be.