I know I'm in capable hands at Charlie's when I ask for a "Jersey Dog" ($3.50) and a dude in a Vincent Jackson jersey goes right to work. He places the hot dog on a cutting board and makes a notch with a knife he's holding in his right hand. Without moving the knife, he rolls the dog up the cutting board with his left hand, exposing its flesh inch by inch. The end result looks like a giant meaty drill bit. Even before it gets dropped in the deep fryer, I'm salivating.
Charlie's has been in business since 1987, situated in Gold Tree Plaza between a Richard's Foodporium and Amistad Insurance, right near Robarts Arena, and it's got all the fixings of a classic fast food joint. Flip-flopped guys order from the laminated menus that rest on the black counter and stroll out with paper bags loaded with grub, while families cluster at the brown tables set out up front and to the right. The air smells like that deep fryer crisping up my hot dog. On the radio blasting above, Dr. Nik from WSLR's 33⅓ is defining what makes a flute a flute and spinning tracks from the band Traffic, his tunes accompanied by the click-clack of spatulas on the grill and the clunk of ice cubes tumbling into Styrofoam cups.
My dog arrives. Seated in a long bun, striped with spicy mustard and showered with finely diced onions, it looks scrumptious. I munch. The trip to the deep fryer has left the dog's skin and those newly exposed interior bits extra crispy, a delightful improvement over the typical dog, cooked on a flattop (although still not as good as one laid over a blistering charcoal or wood fire). But while the texture is excellent, the flavor's a bit lacking. A bland hot dog? I'm sad to report it's so.
You could never accuse Charlie's cheeseburger hoagie ($5.99-$6.99) of lacking flavor. The restaurant takes a big rectangular hunk of ground beef and slaps it in a hoagie bun, then smothers it with melted cheese and (if you like) a generous dosage of sautéed onions, peppers and mushrooms. It's part burger, part cheesesteak—all delicious. One big bite and cheese gushes out onto the wax paper that lines Charlie's black plastic serving baskets.
Charlie's also serves up a variety of cold hoagies and deli sandwiches ($4.25-$8.99), salads ($3.99-$6.78), cheesesteaks ($6.59-$7.59) and even a bunch of outrageously cheap breakfast sammies. I mean, $2.20 for an egg and cheese sandwich? That's just crazy.
For sides, you can choose from French fries ($1.99) or pluck a bag of Lay's or Miss Vickie's ($.99) from the small rack on the counter, but for a little more adventurous selection, might I suggest Charlie's fried mushrooms ($3.25)? The restaurant batters up a small handful of whole button mushrooms and fries them till they're golden. That first bite is scorchingly hot, so be careful, but if you let them rest for a bit, they become wonderfully unique little nuggets. The mushrooms lose all their density; all you're left with is a whoosh of gelatinous mushroom-ness, encased in a crispy crust. Give them—and Charlie's—a try.
Charlie's: The Original Steak & Hoagie
2854 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.