We readily admit we're pretty spoiled with our access to so many ridiculously good restaurants in walking distance- a major perk of living in the middle of a city. Most of these places are built into the block or take up the ground floor of a larger building. Truly separate space for an eatery is pretty rare, and I have started thinking it is odd when I see a stand-alone restaurant. However, in the suburbs and rural areas, the only "built-in" restaurants are those found in shopping complexes. Craig LaBan recently reviewed a South Jersey restaurant located in a strip mall.. and gave it three bells. While you typically associate strip malls with greasy pizza and Chinese take-out, once in awhile you can find a real gem.
A long weekend trip home to Florida gave me the opportunity to spend some time with my parents doing what I like to do best: eating. While they still frequent the exact same restaurant every single Friday night, I'm proud to say they've branched out and tried some new places that they thought I might like to try. As you might suspect, both dinners out were eaten at a shopping plaza.
Not a five-star restaurant.
The first was found a few miles west of the city limit, conveniently located close to GH&FC (best gym ever) right next to a Publix (best grocery store ever). The casual Italian environment of O Sole Mio with its warm rustic-ly painted walls, tile work, upholstered booths, and plenty of brightly colored images of Italy, transports you from the vast parking lot right outside. The service was great, quickly preparing a booth, handing us giant menus and bringing a piping hot basket of garlic bread. And let me tell you.. this was not just any garlic bread. Dense, chewy, buttery knots of dough are cooked to just barely done to give an ever so slight crispness to the outside, then topped with a brush of herbed oil. Seriously, these were like the savory version of the best cinnamon roll you can imagine.
Since the menu is pretty expansive- antipasti, baked pastas, pizzas, calzones, meat dishes of every type, etc- I didn't have high expectations for my entree. However, out first was a choice of soup or salad. The salad was your standard chopped iceberg plus wedge of tomato, but with a decent house made Chianti and basil dressing. My mom was raving about their soups, so she chose to go with the chicken noodle. Huge chunks of zuchhini, carrots and juicy chicken swam together in a rich broth, along with some al dente spaghetti that I ignored. I'm not huge into soup, but this was far far better than the Campbell's variety that I was expecting.
I'm really not a pasta eater, so I rolled with a chicken dish- the Polla alla Sorrentino ($13.99), which of course, is served over spaghetti anyway. The meal consisted of two huge chicken breasts cooked to perfection, then layered with prosciutto, a thin slice of breaded eggplant, and a generous amount of mozzarella. The whole mess is broiled to combine all of the layers into a ridiculously delicious (and obviously completely unhealthy) dinner. My favorite part was a thick slice of tomato hiding under the melty cheese- a nice pop of fresh, crisp texture and flavor. The pasta underneath had a combination white wine/marinara sauce that was quite light- bright and citrusy. I actually joked that I wished my chicken was served on top of garlic rolls instead of pasta but that definitely would have been over the top.
Even though my mom and I both brought over half of our dinners home, we couldn't get out of there without taking advantage of their one cent pizza deal. Yes, you read that right. If you dine-in, you can take home a medium cheese pizza for a penny. I honestly thought this was a hoax and demanded to see the bill. Also, even though I was super full, a steaming hot cheese pizza was pretty tempting, and I had to try it out before putting it in the fridge. My mom even admitted to eating a slice in the car the first time they went. While the sauce was a little on the sweet side, the crust was the kind that is thick and chewy without a hint of crispness- my favorite. I pretty much just ate the crust and a few bites of the pizza, but still. I'm a fat kid at heart.
Overall I'd say O Sole Mio is a pretty stellar Italian eatery, especially considering its location (rural American strip mall). The service was great, the food came out quickly, and we took tons of food home. If you find yourself in Newberry, Florida, stop in here, at least for the garlic bread.
A couple nights later, I accompanied my parents on another strip mall adventure, this time to Garlic & Ginger, a Korean BBQ restaurant complete with outdoor patio for a true barbecue experience. In order to enjoy the Final Four games, we opted to sit inside where the multiple TVs showed both basketball and Korean game shows. Interestingly, we were in the racial minority, which always suggests that the food is relatively authentic.
Our meal started out with a few standard banchan (side dishes)- two types of kimchi, fish cakes, and a gelatinous cube that our waiter called "acorn jelly." The spicy kimchi was flavorful with a kick of ginger and chili, but the regular was a little boring. The surprise star was the acorn jelly- smooth and thick, almost custardy, with a very mild sesame flavor. Apparently this dish is relatively time consuming to make, requiring long soaks for the acorns in order to separate the starch (used for the jelly) from the fiber.
As I've already mentioned, I don't really enjoy "regular" white-flour pasta, preferring alternate renditions such as spaghetti squash or soba noodles. Therefore, I decided to try out the Jab Chae with beef ($13ish), which was described as a sweet potato noodle dish. When it was served, I was definitely surprised- the noodles are transparent. Stir-fried with cabbage, greens, bits of red pepper and tiny bits of beef (I almost thought they left out the meat), the overall flavor is true to the restaurants name- garlic, ginger, a touch of soy, and sesame all played a role in making a spicy, oily, slightly sweet dish. The noodles satisfied my interest in "atypical" pasta, with the crunchy veggies countering the chewy noodles.
We also ordered a side of shrimp and veggie tempura ($8ish), which actually came out after our entrees were served. My mom suggested this was done purposely, as the appetizer was a major fail. The batter was way too heavy and soaked up way too much grease, particularly around the water-heavy veggies like zucchini. The shrimp were alright, but a tad overcooked, and it was hard to taste the seafood through the funnel cake wrapped around each piece. At the end of the meal, the plate was covered in partially eaten pieces, resembling a piece of abstract art. I prefer seeing an empty plate.
While we watched VCU's championship dreams slip away in the last few minutes of the game, our waiter brought us each a small ceramic cup of a cold ginger drink. It tasted like heavily sugared rice milk with a hint of ginger- a sweet sip to soothe any latent lip burning (some of the dishes they serve are uber spicy). Both of my parents had some sort of weird papery substance at the bottom, like disintegrated rice particles. Thankfully, my cup was liquid throughout.
Considering Philly is majorly lacking in the Korean BBQ category (save for Miga), I'm pretty impressed that Gainesville has a decent option. While none of us tried any true Korean BBQ, each of our dishes was interesting and unique- truly authentic cuisine. I'm very glad that such a restaurant is thriving in my small town! Between the two dinners, I'd also suggest looking past the sketchy appearance of strip mall restaurants- you might just find something truly delicious wedged between your dry cleaner and grocery store.
O Sole Mio
Garlic & Ginger
Gainesville, FL (corner of Tower & Archer Roads)