Author Topic: Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants  (Read 25212 times)


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Re: Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants
« Reply #60 on: January 02, 2015, 12:47:28 AM »
I've been to Chopstick Charley's. I remember the experience fondly. Here is a review I wrote for the place back in 2010.

Once, a long time ago, I had a dream about a place off Phillips highway where a person could get outstanding Chinese food.

I was working at the San Marco theater when the Beggar Weeds played on the small stage situated at the front of the theater, and part of their backdrop included a photograph of a sign for a motel called "The Joe." This was probably the genesis of my dream, since The Joe is right next to a place called Chopstick Charley's, and this was the subject of my dream. Of course, twenty years later, I don't remember the dream, but I never forgot the feeling of curiosity about this place.

I had driven by Chopstick Charley's for many years lamenting that I had never had a chance to eat there when it was open. On one trip to chauffeur my grandmother across the city, we passed by Chopstick Charley's and she mentioned that she'd been there recently when the caretakers in the community in which she lived purchased lunch for everyone. I said "Gramma, that place has been closed for years!" with the hubris only those who have not been around for seventy-six years at a minimum can possess. I thought she was simply old and confused and so when she insisted, I simply said "Okay Gramma."

Later, I got married and as my wife and I passed The Joe, she remarked that it was strangely brazen to name a motel after the infamous patrons of prostitutes, and I looked at her with a puzzled look obtained through years of experience at being puzzled, eventually realizing that she mistook The Joe for "the john."

Eventually our conversation steered toward Chopstick Charley's and how I was still regretful at never having the chance to partake of their presumably wonderful Chinese comestibles since, you know, they are closed. By now I started thinking how odd it was that a place that has obviously been out of business for so long hasn't been annexed by either the giant automotive boneyard on one side or the writhing forestry on the other, or even by the city to make way for some form of cookie-cutter strip mall, because we need more of those.

All of this brings me to the year 2010. Before the year 2000, everyone who talked about 2000 combined it with the words "the year," and it always made me wonder if people in 1850 talked about "the year 1900" with the same sparkle-eyed techno-angst that people did with 2000. Regardless, it is now 2010 and my friend Nikki mentions that she has eaten far too much food from, of all places, Chopstick Charley's.

And suddenly, after years of remaining in pretty much the same place, my synapses started reorganizing themselves, briefly causing a loss of all forms of coherence. When I recovered, I decided no more time would be wasted before I sampled Charley's cuisine.

Eventually, another week passed, and I decided once again to waste no more time and get to Charley's. Just a few days ago, we were returning from a small family reunion and happily discussing something that would change the world as we know it. Unfortunately, I was safely yielding to traffic at the onramp to 9A while the driver behind me was not, and in the bone-jarring collision I forgot what we were discussing. Nevertheless, since my wife hurt her back in the accident and is in no condition to stand and make supper, I am directed to obtain kung-pao chicken and egg rolls.

Going to new places and having new experiences is something special to me, but this was different. This was a reawakening, something I thought I'd left behind back in 1996, and here I was feeling all that old curiosity about that post-WWII chow-mein/motel complex. I was on my way to Chopstick Charley's, and by default, The Joe, which is now just "The Joe" and not "The Joe Motel." I would still like to stay there, because I think the name now gives it an air of short-stay superiority. I would then be able to brag about staying in the finest places in Jacksonville; The Sheraton, The Adam's Mark, The Joe.

The store itself is nothing extraordinary for forty years ago, but for 2010 it is a remarkable throwback to days when you could get away with a lot more and not get closed by the authorities. The front door looks a lot like the door to the bathroom in my old house, in that it doesn't seem to close correctly and so sits open all the time; a great sign.

Inside, the place is dark and the decor is stuck back in the late Sixties, complete with coat and hat racks on each booth. The ceiling is coming apart and threatens to fall upon anyone brave enough to dine-in, making me feel a bit like Damocles. There are two people sitting at the far end of the restaurant watching cartoons; a person I presume to be Kitty, whom I have heard is the owner, operator, chef, wait staff, and cashier; and another man, who never speaks to me but watches me intently for several minutes before turning his attention back to the television. I wonder if this is Charley.

Kitty gets up and is very friendly, inviting me to sit down and tell her what I would like. Today, however, I am taking out. I ask her for a menu, and receive a very no-nonsense menu which is hand written in many places. There are a lot of choices, but none of them are kung-pao chicken. So I order something I think everyone will like, and four egg rolls. The idea is that egg rolls are small and I am pretty hungry, so I will get enough for me and everyone else. She takes my order without writing anything down, and I am already impressed, since I have to use a voice recorder for damn near everything I want to remember. She tells me it will be twenty minutes, so if I have something to do I should do it. I like her.

I drive around for a while and come back in precisely twenty minutes, thinking someone of her age might respect punctuality, and I did not want to wait in line. This time I walk in and the non-speaking man only glances my way before resuming his cartoon absorption. For a moment, I think he may not speak English, then he laughs at one of the jokes in the cartoon, and I realize I am just not that interesting.

I fill the next five minutes with photographing the interior with my phone, which piques the interest of Cartoon Man, who starts watching me intently as I wander around the front of the dining room. Eventually, Kitty comes out lugging a bag of what looks like lead, since she is obviously struggling to carry it. I offer to take it from her and she hands me the heavy bag of food that feels like a bag of lead. I pay, eager to get home and try it.

On my way home, I take out one of the egg rolls, still thinking they are the same generic, La Choy egg rolls one might find at Panda Express. I am wrong. It is a huge fried beast, and I bite into it like a bear at a salmon run. My very first impression was pain, because it immediately coated the inside of my mouth with searing hot oil. The next sensation was enlightenment, because this was one of the single best egg rolls I have ever eaten. There were chunks of vegetables that actually looked like someone took the time to dice them and fry them with love and care. I am reminded of the Spongebob Squarepants episode where he is challenged by Neptune to prove his fry cook creds.

At home, the bags are emptied and the familiar food containers are open and the scent of freshly fried sweet and sour goodness fills the room. The taste of it is different than the usual sweet and sour chicken. It is not powerfully sweet and doesn't have the texture of generic chicken-flavored meat parts covered in molasses. It is light and contains what appears to be an entire chicken reduced to pieces; rather than all white meat, there is a combination of white, fatty dark, and dark meat lightly fried and coated in a very light and sweet sauce. I like this, my wife does not, so there are some pieces she cannot eat.

The pork lo mein is also delicious. The meat tastes like pork, and the noodles taste fresh as do the vegetables fried within, and it is not too oily. The fried rice is excellent, with a very different flavor than other fried rice I have consumed. The whole thing has the feel of a meal that was made by hand by a family member who is really good at making Chinese-style food. Somehow, I don't think she spares the MSG.

The only part that was disgusting was the part that is arguably the most thought of when consuming Chinese food; the fortune cookie. These tasted like the original fortune cookies that came with the restaurant. Not that they have the same flavor, but that they are actually forty-year-old cookies. We both spit them out immediately. To Kitty's credit, she didn't make the fortune cookies, so I can't really fault her. If she had made them, I am sure they would have been three times larger than other fortune cookies, and would have contained actual prophesies.

If you want good homemade Chinese-style food, and don't mind potentially getting asked for loose change, or your car and then your loose change, Chopstick Charley's is your place. Provided that I survive the next few days with no gastrointestinal rebellion, I would not hesitate to eat from there again. It would take a little convincing to actually eat there, though.